“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

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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All the Horror: Women in Horror Month

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month! During the month of February, a group of mostly podcasters plus yours truly are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Visit the Promote Horror website for all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 4th, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror films, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Enjoy!

  1. Clarice Starling (Feb 4)
  2. Ellen Ripley (Feb 11)
  3. Nancy Thompson (Feb 18)
  4. Annie Wilkes (Feb 25)

Clarice Starling

When I think of strong female characters in horror, one name instantly jumps to the front of my mind, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is she, in my opinion, the single most important female character in all horror, she is one of the most influential and important female characters in all of cinema! Perhaps there is no greater example of a dynamic, unassailable female central character in a horror film. Not only is the character one to be revered and admired, but Foster won the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Clarice. Incidentally, The Silence of the Lambs is only one of three films to win the Big 5 Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). But we are here to analyze the character of Clarice.

Even before we learn anything about Clarice’s wit and intellectual prowess, we witness her hard-working nature on the obstacle course in Quantico, VA, well-known for being the home of the FBI training academy; her status as an FBI academy student is solidified by her shirt. Furthermore, we observe her holding her own in a field dominated by men. This opening sequence of shots is important to visually convey Clarice’s raw determination to achieve what she wants. We don’t have to know the particular area of the FBI in which she wants to specialize, all we need to know is that she will stop at nothing to realize her aspirations. Even when she dies in a simulation, she does not excuse her lack of response, but she states why she died in a purely objective way. We learn later on in the film, that Clarice is haunted by a childhood trauma of a combination of her father dying during a burglary and the slaughter of lambs at her uncle’s ranch. She is driven by her desire to protect and free the innocent from dangerous humans in the world. Hence why she pursues a career as a special agent in the FBI. Her career aspirations are a means for her to overcome the emotional chaos of her childhood by stopping at nothing to land her position in the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI under Jack Crawford.

One clear motif throughout these opening scenes is this idea of a woman in a man’s world; moreover, it’s the depiction of female agency. Although not one of the most memorable quotes from the film, Clarice’s line “If he [Buffalo Bill] sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up” this is the line that highlights this often overlooked theme central to the plot of the film. Moreover, there is recurring imagery of the male gaze and the defiance thereof from colleagues, superiors, officer counterparts, and Dr. Lecter. Entire articles have been written on cinema and the male gaze, and I don’t have time to go into all the details in this character analysis of Clarice; but for the majority of its existence, cinema has reflected heterosexual male dominance–objectifying women–whether its overt through action or subtle through subtext. However, The Silence of the Lambs combats this practice by subverting the voyeuristic male gaze by forcing the audience to see Clarice (and all women in the film, by extension) as unique individuals and not objects.

One of the most admirable aspects of Clarice is her well-rounded nature as a character. She shows signs of strength, vulnerability, innocence, determination, independence, and a willingness to learn. By way of the manner in which Director Jonathan Demme chose to have the male characters, friend or foe, look directly into the camera lens when addressing Clarice and Clarice looking just off camera when responding predisposed us to identifying with Clarice’s character–we place ourself in her shoes. As the male characters look into the camera addressing Clarice, we feel that they are gazing at and addressing us. But my Clarice looking away from the camera lens, she visually subverts the male gaze as she becomes the one with the power in the scene. Great way to visually communicate this theme to the audience. But it’s more than just communicating a theme, this action gives Clarice power often attributed to male characters therefore increasing her level of dominance.

Clarice is everything that we want in a horror or thriller protagonist. And the beauty of this film is that it is both a horror and suspense thriller. And she works as an admirable, brave, and authentically human for both. More than a strong protagonist, she is a feminine icon who needs no qualifiers. Simply stated, she broke the mold of what was expected of female protagonists in general, and specifically horror. All the while she is working diligently at tracking down Buffalo Bill and learning how to best work with Dr. Lecter, she faces both overt and subtle discrimination but does not flinch a muscle. It’s her sheer chutzpah, authenticity, and respect for Dr. Lecter that endears her to him. Has she shown weakness, a facade, or patronized Dr. Lecter, it’s entirely possible that he may not have taken a liking to her. He realized that she was truly a match for his wits, a worthy opponent. Continually, she displays strength of character and impressive intellectual prowess. Well written central and opposition characters often have a symbiotic relationship (that was partially highlighted in David Gordon Green’s Halloween), one cannot truly exist without the other, or at least one is not as interesting without the other. The more interesting Clarice is, the more interesting Hannibal is. They both display traits that complement one another. It’s this complementary nature that Dr. Lecter finds intriguing and worthy of his admiration. And in the same way, Clarice is attracted to certain qualities of Dr. Lecter that prompt her to respect him as an individual despite his heinous crimes.

A couple of examples from the film in which men feel threatened by or undervalue the level of excellence that is found in the person and career of Clarice can be found in Dr. Chilton and the sheriff’s deputies in the funeral home after the body of Buffalo Bill’s first victim was discovered at which she is sidelined by Crawford and gawked at by the deputies. When Dr. Chilton learns that Clarice was able to connect with Dr. Lecter in her brief when he’s been selfishly attempting to for years, he seeks to subvert Clarice’s efforts, to no avail thankfully. His masculinity was threatened by a female, and Chilton was not about to have that. Good thing he got his comeuppance. When in the funeral home/morgue of Frederica Bimmel, Crawford intentionally sidelines Clarice because he felt the details were too disturbing for her; she shows him by taking control of the room by forcing the sheriff’s deputies out of the room because she has it under control and gets up close and personal with the victim. This is also the scene where she finds the telltale death’s head moth that has become synonymous with this film. In that scene we witness Clarice recognizing her unequal treatment, and rises to the occasion to show that she would not stand for it because she was objectively qualified to continue in her work without hand-holding or patronization.

Outside of the two etymologists, the only male character to not show any signs of misogyny nor gender discrimination is Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself. As highlighted earlier, he recognized her as a formidable opponent in his mind games. Although he certainly tries to get in her head, make her feel uncomfortable, and face her past demons to silence the lambs, nothing he does is motivated out of sexual desire or gender discrimination. Nothing in her role is truly defined by her gender. In fact, much like the character of Ripley in Alien was originally slated for a male character, the character of Clarice Starling could also be a male. I am glad it wasn’t because the narrative would lose some power. But the point is, that she is in no way defined by her gender, instead is defined by her integrity, character, and intelligence.

Even when taking on “masculine” traits and existing within a male dominated field of work, she never ceases to remain a feminine character. She and Alien‘s Ripley share this in common.  Jodie Foster states in reference to her iconic character, “Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, intuition, her frailty, and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.” The character of Clarice Starling is one that should serve as a model for other female central characters. She contributed significantly to the world of cinema, but specifically the American horror film.

Ellen Ripley

This. Is. Alien. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard–the starship–Nostromo. Caution. The area you are en-ter-ing is extremely dan-ger-ous. Something has gone wrong… If you get why I punctuated that the way I did, then you remember the Alien scene on the former Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (oh how I miss that attraction). We cannot talk Women in Horror without analyzing the boundary busting, glass ceiling breaking Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced us that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. The strength of this movie is not in the Xenomorph, the effects (albeit great), or even the first characters you spend time with in the film, the strength of this film is in the ineffaceable character of Ripley.

Although she is, for all intents and purposes, not even on our radar for nearly 45mins into the film, following a tragedy, she is thrust into the forefront of this mission. Scott’s Alien dared to challenge the status quo in order to deliver the first female action hero, and place her in center stage. The long and short of it is that Ripley subverts the typical science-fiction hero trope to embody both the feminine and masculine to redefine what a hero is within the sci-fi/horror genre. Breaking gender norms for the time, she was neither arm candy, simply a side kick nor required rescuing by a male character. Her character and actions were not defined by gender. She is our final girl, and so much more. Not only did the character of Ripley contribute significantly to horror, she also broke ground for female heroines in the world of cinema at large.

Your central character need not always be the first or second character we encounter in a screenplay. This is true with Ripley as she emerges as the central character midway through the film. However, we are given hints at her destiny throughout the first act in subtle ways. It was important to the plot to establish her as a woman in order to make her actions later on in the film so kickass and assumption shattering. Had she been seen as “masculine” or strong from the onset, then we would not be as impressed with her actions–we would expect them. Part of her power as a strong female character in horror is taking what we assumed about her (or a female character in general) and subvert our predisposition. Whereas Ripley is not the first female heroic character in a horror film, she is one that never becomes subjected to the male gaze or becomes some fantasy version of a woman. Even though female heroic characters who wear sexy clothes, wield phallic guns, or use their bodies as femme fatals can be strong characters, they are still some heteronormative fantasy for a male screenwriter or director.

Essentially, the aforementioned female characters lack an authentic humanity. Ripley is strong, vulnerable, independent, scared, mortal; these elements that make her believably human. There is so little suspension of disbelief in her character that she could nearly exist in real life. Furthermore, her character is incredibly complex; she exhibits strong intuition and intelligence, chutzpah, is brash, talks about PTSD, outspoken, rigidly wants to go by the book instead of saving a man’s life, has a natural beauty but doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup. All these traits portray someone who has incredible depth and dimension. She is a survivor. No matter how grizzly, messy, constricting, or frightening her soundings become, she remains steadfast, collected, and brave. As the 1970s saw many changes in censorship, ratings, guidelines, etc., the ability to show gorier, more visceral body horror special effects, and on screen violence allowed Scott to confront the character of Ripley with cinematically innovative ways to test her resilience and survivorship.

The character of Ellen Ripley is also a strong pillar of the American horror film by virtue of her representation of gender politics. Even before it became popular, in more recent times, to use both male and female characters in motion pictures as a conduit to comment on the state of affairs for a particular group within our society, Ridley Scott crafted a visual masterpiece that did just that. Highly innovative, forward thinking, and progressive. The subtext of the film confronts us with a woman trying her best to fit into a man’s world. In addition to that subtext, research into the screenplay for this film shows that all the characters were written as gender neutral. Interesting stuff, right?!? Another gender-related observation in the character of Ripley, is her both metaphorically and physiologically clothing herself in masculinity all while remaining a women. In one scene, Ripley steps into a space suit. And this space suit can be read as Ripley playing the role of a man while remaining a women at her core in order to challenge the patriarchal system to prove that she is capable of anything that a masculine hero is.

Ripley is a highly intelligent character, realizes that about herself, and does not allow herself to be patronized or undermined. She does her job aboard the Nostromo like a legit boss. She knows procedure and protocol, and will follow it in order to protect her crew. Figuratively, she is protecting the ship from being willfully penetrated by a foreign object. This could be read as a commentary on rape. She is forcefully overruled, and we all know what happens next. Further commentary depicts male characters “forgetting” that Ripley is the senior officer. But because she is female, they feel they know better. I bet they wish they had followed her orders. Although much of what I’ve written deals with the masculine qualities of Ripley, her character would not have been as powerful a character if it wasn’t for her feminine side as well. When all hell is breaking loose, she soothes the nerves of the crew and offers comfort. Exemplary motherly qualities. Had a man been in her role, then he would most likely have not exhibited such love for the crew. Her success as a hero has as much to do with the touch of a women as it does the chutzpah of a man. Another motherly quality found in Ripley is her persistent urge for the crew to function as a group. Through the brilliant cinematography, we are consistently shown a group that is fractures and continually fails to band together until it is too late. Interestingly, each character meets his or her demise because of a tragic flaw and failure to group together to function as ONE crew instead of self-centered individuals. Had the group functioned as one, then more may have survived. This hypothesis is witnessed in the Ripley in Act 3 because she essentially embodies all the good qualities found in the other characters (think Captain Planet). She combines what everyone did well into one character. That is why she is the final girl. Only by combining all the qualities of the crew was she able to go toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph killing machine.

There are actually three prominent female characters in Alien. Ripley, the Xenomorph, and The Nostromo. Although Ripley is our central character, I would be remiss to not mention the other two that could be analyzed individually themselves. Much like Ripley exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics, so does the Xenomorph with a mouth that oscillates between vaginal and phallic in nature. And finally, The Nostromo ostensibly gives birth to all the astronauts at the beginning of the film; and therefore could be referred to as the mother ship. Playing around with gender does not stop there. The facegrabber impregnates a male character and he gives birth to the Xenomorph. Underscoring so many elements and conflicts in this film is this idea of subverting gender identity with the intent to horrify by tapping into primal heteronormative fears. And let’s face it, child birth is terrifying. Unfortunately, all the sequels failed to live up to the substantive nature of the original and devolve into a generic futuristic action-adventure series; but the original Alien delivered a nightmare-inducing “haunted house” movie set in the far reaches of space where “no one can hear you scream,” and provided us with the breakthrough character of Ellen Ripley.

Nancy Thompson

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” More than a final girl, Nancy is a live girl. While Halloween‘s Laurie Strode often gets credit for being the original final girl, and with good reason, a solid argument could be made that A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) is the OG final girl. For my third character analysis for Women in Horror Month, I want to explore the character of Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the previous two analyses, Nancy is not yet an adult, pursuing her career in law enforcement or the far reaches of space. She is an every-man with whom we can identify, because we were all, or maybe still are, teenagers facing everyday struggles with our relationship with our parents, love interests, and our friends. With death surrounding her on all sides, she powers through the grave conflict, to face her nightmares, and defeat the Dream Master himself Freddy Krueger. Well, set him back anyway. Haha.

Unlike Laurie Strode, Nancy is not the final girl by default; she completely Home Alones Freddy and continually fights back without ever backing down. She takes an active role in ensuring her survival. Furthermore, no one comes in to aid in her rescue or the defeat of Freddy; Nancy is alone in her endeavors. Despite her strength of character and resilience, she is largely overlooked by fans. Her co-star Freddy Krueger (played by the incomparable Robert Englund) steals the spotlight. Although Freddy is my favorite horror slasher villain, I often wonder why Nancy doesn’t get the same treatment that Laurie gets in Halloween. Making her debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy appears again in Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare (as Heather, but she is still very much Nancy). Grab your coffee, and stay up with me as we explore Nancy Thompson!

We aren’t given much insight into the degree to which Nancy excels in school, but she is undoubtedly quite the scholar! Not that whether or not she is a member of the honor society makes a difference, but it does aid in showing us that she possesses superior critical thinking skills. If not for her brilliant combination of street and book smarts, she may not have survived this very real nightmare. Unlike many final girls who are often on the defensive, she spends much of the movie on the offense–she goes looking for Freddy. Who does that??? Nancy, that’s who! We witness Nancy read books to learn more about dreams and newspapers to learn more about Fred Krueger; furthermore, she experiments with booby traps and methods to remain awake or force sleep. Resilient, resourceful, and ready. A great alliteration to describe Nancy. Her survival does not happen by default or through a deus ex machina, she survives through grit, determination, and a willingness to learn and place herself in harm’s way. It’s this notion that she transcends what we think of as a final girl to even go so far as to subvert our predispositions. Whereas typical final girls merely survive, Nancy takes control of the Freddy conflict in a revenge fashion to win. “I’m into survival,” as Nancy so brilliantly puts it.

Nancy is not concerned with innocence or following the rules to maintain the status quo. While she still may be a “good girl,” she is not concerned with playing the good girl card in order to somehow survive Freddy. On display in this film is the cinematic and literary construct of the maiden turned warrior. We witness a psychological growth arc paralleling a physiological transformation, in the character of Nancy, that takes her from everyday teenager, complete with the angst, to heroine. And her inner-personal journey is not without its own obstacles and conflict. At every step of the way, Nancy encounters loved ones in her life (be they family or friends) who consistently do not believe in her–until it is too late. All of Elm Street doesn’t believe her, but she knows that Freddy is killing the Elm Street kids in their nightmares, and she is going to prove it and stop him.

One of the messages that I preach to my screenwriting class is the importance of communicating character thoughts and feelings visually (only write what you can see), and Wes Craven does precisely that to communicate how everyone feels about Nancy’s claim that Freddy is back. For example, Nancy’s mother violates her body by subjecting her to sleep tests and even making her a prisoner of her own home with the bars on the windows. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma Nancy experiences can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, her family, or friends, she endures gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder all within the confines of the home–and more specifically–the intimacy of the mind. Not only does Nancy prove that she may in fact be the definitive final girl, though overshadowed by Laurie, by her active role in ensuring her survival against Freddy, she also survives psychological and physiological trauma enacted upon her by loved ones. Her voice was silenced, her path to escape was barred, and her claims that Freddy returned from the dead into the dream world were completely dismissed. This parallels what many women face every day–they are not taken seriously or they are patronized. Her character is a metaphor for what many women face daily.

One may conclude that Nancy lacks the vulnerability and (heteronormatively speaking) feminine nature that is required, traditionally speaking, of a final girl. Certainly the preceding paragraphs skew toward ultimate horror badass, but the beauty of Nancy’s character is that she grows from a vulnerable female teenager into the final girl that we know today. Her all-too-human feminine vulnerability is shown through her white pajamas with pink roses, her teenage angst, crying when she is upset or feels dismissed, and she experiences the emotional rollercoaster that we all, but especially teenagers, ride. After rewatching A Nightmare on Elm Street in the cinema for a 35th anniversary special one night only screening, I was reminded of just how much of a girl she is throughout the whole movie. Not only does she get scared and cry and even take cover behind Glen early on in the film, but she also wears clothes that reinforce the idea that she doesn’t need to take on masculine traits in order to defeat evil. Her character transformation occurs in the mind and she proves that a girl can do anything that a guy can do. She does not allow the constant barrage of dismissal or people telling her that she’s crazy to detour her from what she knows to the nightmarish truth.

Further distinguishing Nancy from other final girls is the manner in which she does defeat Freddy Krueger. Whereas we assume she hasn’t had sex with her boyfriend Glen and does not appear to use illicit drugs or undermines authority for her own selfish pleasure, she does not defeat Freddy because she is a “good girl.” Nancy relies upon resilience, wit, and confidence; ultimately, she defeats Freddy by refusing to give him anymore of her emotional energy (a feminine trait) instead of wielding some phallic weapon like a knife, machete, or bludgeoning tool. Unlike other final girls whom become a de facto male character during the showdown, she remains committed to her femininity. Unlike the gender politics of Alien, the character of Nancy doesn’t oscillate between feminine and masculine. Instead, she transforms from normal, innocent teenager with many of the same familiar and friendship conflicts we face to the brave, determined, proactive smart heroine that defeated Freddy (temporarily anyway), all while never shifting from her typical female behaviors and identity.

After Freddy’s Revenge (and you can hear my review of this installment on Cocktail Party Massacre), Nancy returns in Dream Warriors as a graduate student working and studying at a psychiatric hospital. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. The Freddy experience has certainly had an effect upon her, but she has taken that traumatic experienced, harnessed the power of it and channeled it in a positive direction to help others who are experiencing psychological trauma that has real world physical traits. Specifically, she researches the mental and physical effects of nightmares. Without diverting into a plot analysis of this tertiary installment in the franchise, she is able to successfully transfer her strengths to the Elm Street children. Completely unrelated to the character of Nancy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Freddy quote of all time that appears in this movie, “welcome to prime time, bitch!”

Even before meta horror became popular, and Wes Craven himself would write and direct the definitive meta horror Scream two years later, he returned with full creative control to the Nightmare franchise to write the final chapter (until Freddy vs Jason and the awful 2010 remake) in the reign of Freddy, he gave us New Nightmare. Despite her death in Dream Warriors, “Nancy” stars once again in the Nightmare on Elm Street third chapter New Nightmare. Nancy is in quotes because it is the actress Heather Langenkamp as a character in this meta Nightmare film. She is Heather but very much Nancy all at the same time. In addition to Heather playing herself playing Nancy, Robert Englund plays himself playing Freddy. Other actors/characters from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street have appearances as well. In this film, Heather faces her reality fracturing as a nightmarish specter from her past comes to haunt her. It looks like Freddy, but it is much more sinister. What I love about Heather/Nancy is the fact that she channels her Nancy from the original and Dream Warriors. But she doesn’t phone in her performance or give us the same character. Her “Nancy” has grown. One of the biggest differences between Nancy and Heather is that Heather is now challenged with protecting her son at all costs. Through her passion, wit, confidence, and unyielding ability to face the darkness head on, she confronts Freddy to once again, become the final girl.

Annie Wilkes

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of Annie Wilkes? Well, they should because she is one of the most terrifying Women in Horror ever. Perhaps you do not remember her by name, but you most likely know the film Misery. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While my other character analyses for Women in Horror Month focussed on final girls, for this final entry, I desired to explore a truly sinister female character whom captivated us with her outstanding performance. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that mostly takes place in one location. But this one location houses two indelible characters, one of which is a wildly disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film (need I mention Velvet Buzzsaw), but it helps us understand the depth and power of the character of Annie Wilkes. Both Sheldon and Wilkes work so well because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

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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All the Horror! 31 Horror Movies for October

If you haven’t figured out by now, my favorite genre is horror! 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 my 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! As I am someone who enjoys order and a method to accomplishing a movie challenge, I am dedicating each 5-7 days to a different subgenre of horror. My plan is to begin with its German expressionism origins and work my way up to more recent movies and trends. Although the idea is to dedicate a whole week to the selected subgenres, I may switch it up every five days in order to get six different kinds of horror films. To my podcast friends, I would love to join the #AllTheHorror conversations this month. Send me an email or direct message on Twitter to setup a time for me to join your next horror discussion. Let’s begin!

First Group (1920-30s German expressionism, French surrealism, and early horror)

Movie 1 (10/01)

Nosferatu (1922). Directed by F.W. Murnau, Nosferatu is widely considered the first vampire movie and direct forerunner to Universal Studios’ Dracula. This early horror movie is so incredibly good that you forget that there is no spoken dialogue in the film. One of the most impactful elements of the experience of watching this beautiful example of the best of horror, is the film’s argument that vampires are real. In essence, I feel strongly that this film wants us to believe that “Dracula-like” vampires are real and must be feared. Steeped in German expressionistic cinematic stylings, this film typifies the stylistic technique by using exaggerated gothic architecture and harsh shadows. In this cinematic movement, directors used symbolic acting, events, and architecture to tell the story. Although this film IS based on Bram Stoker’s iconic gothic novel, Murnau changed the names because the Stoker estate felt it was being ripped off. Beyond the contributions to the American horror film, this film is also considered to be the first to include a montage. Now commonplace, this was an innovative decision for Murnau. The symbolism in the imagery is beautifully executed and truly creates a macabre atmosphere. While there are many ways of reading this film, some of the more common metaphors boil down to the content of our nightmares or what wakes you with trouble at the witching hour of 3am. War, disease, cancer, security, and love are certainly visible in the imagery and production design. As most of the film is covered in shadows, think of this as the dark corners of your mind. A highly visual means of storytelling, Nosferatu captures the imagination through the setting and characters.

Movie 2 (10/02)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921). Often cited as the first feature length film to incorporate the twist ending, director Robert Wiene’s German expressionism masterpiece contributed significantly to the development of the American horror film. Like something straight out of a macabre tale from Edgar Allan Poe, this early work of cinema was the first to truly depict–visually–the inner workings of a disturbed and depraved mind–a fractured psyche. The production design is brilliant. With its skewed perspectives, warped imagery, imaginative lines, shadows, and more, this film provides audiences with a glimpse into what Freud calls the uncannyUncanny being a chief component of the American horror film. Like with many horror films, the central conflict revolves around a mysterious death, and a bizarre investigation ensues. Whereas the plot itself may not be horror by today’s understanding, many scholars including myself, consider it to be the first true horror film. Furthermore, this film’s visual stylings inspired some of what Universal used in their early works of horror from Phantom of the Opera to Wolfman. It has it all! An ominous villain, extremes of emotions, tensions increase and release, and here is visual terror. Preceding Nosferatu by one year, this film set the foundation for German expressionistic cinema, followed by many directors. Even to this day, many horror films include exaggerated shapes, shadows, and symbolism. Although the plots of horror films have changes since this film, the visual elements it established are still very much a part of the American horror film.

Movie 3 (10/03)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Before the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, there was the quintessential Lon Chaney cinematic masterpiece Universal Pictures’ The Phantom of the Opera. The second horror film to be released by Universal (with the Hunchback of Notre Dame being the first), this film defined the capabilities of special effects makeup. In fact, Lon Chaney took most of his secrets to his grave (I learned that at the Horror Makeup Show at Universal Orlando). Having just watched Nosferatu three days ago, it is clear to me that Chaney was channeling his impressions of the Max Schreck performance. Far different from its more modern adaptations, wether is the 2004 film or the original Webber musical, this film has a macabre, ominous atmosphere about it. It is creepy from the onset. One of the traits of a horror film is its innate ability to be pervasive, to question popular culture and provide us with different perspectives on cultural norms, traditions, sociology, or institutions. And this film does precisely that! Prior to Dracula, this is considered by many to be the first gothic romance (although you can also argue Hunchback was first). But in terms of the lighting, production design, and performances, this film became the standard that many others would follow in order to inject romance into horror. Phantom of the Opera is rich with themes! As horror often is. We have the classic romance of unrequited love, beauty vs the beast (and we have different types of beasts in the story), the very concept of a ghoul, and more. This film contributed vastly to the horror foundational library upon which many tales would be developed. Beautiful horror.

Movie 4 (10/04)

Dracula (1931). Universal continues strong into the horror genre with an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula! Bela Lugosi, who many consider to be the definitive Dracula, stars in this gothic romance that’s incredibly foundational in the American horror film. This hypnotic horror movie is both beautiful and terrifying. You may wonder why Lon Chaney did not play this iconic role since he had a winning streak with The Hunchback and The Phantom of the Opera, well unfortunately Mr. Chaney passed away as Dracula was going into production. Lugosi was not unknown to the world of showbusiness; he was the star of the Broadway show Dracula in 1927. The most memorable parts of this film are Lugosi’s performance and the brilliant cinematography by Karl Freund that give the unmistakable look and feel of the film. Not taking away from director Tod Browning, but he benefited greatly from the talent of the aforementioned gentlemen. To his credit though, Browning looked to Murnau’s Nosferatu for the overall production of his take on Dracula. Although the production design, lighting, and tone of the film are quite similar to Nosferatu, the biggest difference is the addition of sound. Drawing your attention in almost the same way Lugosi hypnotizes his victims, his background in live theatre enabled him to capture your imagination and gaze with his highly stylized mannerisms and vocal inflections. Perhaps what fascinates us with the act of vampirism is that is it like an elegant, slow-motion assault, executed with precision and politeness by a beautiful creature who charms you into giving yourself completely over to them.

Movie 5 (10/05)

Un Chien Andalou (1929). You may be wondering why this film is part of my #31HorrorFilms31Days. After all, it is not ordinarily a film that you think of when watching horror movies. However, this film in conjunction with other early works from the 1920s and 30s provided the very foundation upon which the horror film was built. At its roots, the American horror film is comprised of German expressionism, French surrealism, and Freud’s uncanny. Un Chien Andalou, directed by none other than Salvador Dali, is the definitive surrealist film. Famous for its opening scene that still evokes shock, awe, and makes you queasy to this day, this film is full of outstanding imagery that is collectively some of the most searing and memorable ever to appear on the silver screen. Just from that brief description, it should become clear as to why this film is foundational in creating the imagery of a horror movie. If expressionism sought to depict subjective emotions through architecture, lighting, and symbolism, then surrealism countered that movement by creating a super reality that destroyed rationalism in exchange for the hidden, underlying laws of our world. Releasing the creative potential of the unconscious mind was the goal. There is very little story in this film, but rather a series of sequences that demonstrate Not only is this film influential in the evolution of the American horror film, but it’s arguably the single most famous short film in history. I wish I could provide you with an analysis of the story, but there simply isn’t one. Lots and lots of surrealist images that are purely an artform meant to shock, terrorize, indulge, and humor audiences. Ars Gratia Artis (latin: art for art’s sake).r

Movie 6 (10/06)

The Mummy (1932). From the same writer who brought us 1931’s Dracula, The Mummy provides the horror genre with a foundation in creepy existential romanticism. Interestingly, Boris Karloff’s mummy costume may be instantly recognizable; however, he only spends a few minutes wrapped up as the mummy. The rest of the movie, he is dressed pretty snazzy. His makeup is incredible, not because it’s flashy but because it’s just the right amount of texture to give us the impression that he could potentially return to the sarcophagus from which he came. What The Mummy contributes to the development of the American horror film is more than the creepy romance; it provides audiences with more than an hour (yes, just 70mins) of affective atmospheric terror and dread. While both Dracula and Frankenstein have impressive creatures and effects, the Mummy demonstrates an exemplary commitment to recreating Egypt. In so many scenes, we have beautiful artifacts and decorations that transport us from our (now) living rooms to Cairo. This film may be a combination of shots on a sound stage and in the Mojave desert, but the composite on film convinces me that I am in Egypt. We may only see Karloff in his mummy wrappings for a few minutes and that terrifying face with the penetrating gaze, but his performance was so effective that these images are ingrained in our mind’s eye to this day.

Second group (1950s science-fiction, haunting, and proto-slasher)

Movie 7 (10/07)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Universal delivers audiences another monster, but this time it is in a tropical lagoon instead of a cold, dark crypt. The 1950s was a time that horror was transitioning from far away lands and long ago times to other worldly destinations in the present and future. Nestled nicely in between The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon countered the common science-fiction movies of the day with a brilliant science-fiction horror that was equal parts terrifying and impressive. While space and distant planets could be replicated on a sound stage, this film chose the difficult task of shooting on top of and underwater. I am so incredibly impressed by the costuming of the gill-man and the amount of time spent shooting underwater. By all measurable accounts, Arnold is one of the greatest science-fiction horror directors of all time. In fact, two of his movies are forever inshrined in the opening song from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whereas the earlier Universal monsters were largely the subjects of gothic or creepy romances, this was a solid horror film that paved the way for the modern film in 1960 with Psycho. The 1950s were a highly transitional time for horror and this film successfully bridges the gap between the stories of the 1920s and 30s and adds in additional kills and scary moments to provide audiences with a fantastic experience. The plot of this film is also exceptional! It has razor-sharp pacing and culminates in an exciting showdown. Little known fact, this film played in 3D in theatres of the day! While many of the scenes were shot on Universal’s backlot, the above water and under water scenes were shot in Florida. From the writing to costuming and production design, this science-fiction horror movie played such an important role in the development of horror films.

Movie 8 (10/08)

The Thing from Another World (1951). During the 1950s, horror takes a turn to the science-fiction realm. Whereas monsters were a stable of the 20s and 30s, science, space, and oceans became the settings and subjects of the films. Interestingly, this can be seen as an extension of the early monsters era because we still encounter monsters in these other worldly stories. In the 1980s, John Carpenter would remake this iconic sci-fi horror film. Although I am typically a fan of originals most, I must confess that I prefer Carpenter’s The Thing to the original. However, no mistaking it, I really like The Thing from Another World. What I respect most about this film and what I feel that it contributes significantly to the horror genre is the power and terror evoked from that which is unseen. This film demonstrates a mastery of that which we cannot see. Hitchcock once stated that there is “nothing more terrifying than an unopened door.” One of the running themes in this movement of the American horror film is the concept of being rescued by institutional, scientific, or governmental authorities. Plot wise, to be honest, I feel that the original has a stronger story; however, the visceral horror was definitely increased in the Carpenter remake.

Movie 9 (10/09)

House of Wax (1953). Vincent Price jumpstarts his career in horror in the classic House of Wax. A little known fact is that, while many think of this as the original, it was actually a remake of the earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). This visually stunning horror film still holds up well today. Although the 2005 remake is more horrific in terms of the visceral horror, the 1953 version’s plot is more sound and the characters far more interesting–especially the character of Professor Jarrod (Price). Even by today’s standards, this film is highly disturbing and assaults the eye at every turn. From the melting life-like faces of wax figures to a vat that’s designed to pour molten wax over human bodies. Many argue that Price’s Prof. Jarrod is a prototype for the slasher that would be perfected by Hitchcock in Psycho. Price’s performance in this film is highly memorable. He may be recognized first and foremost by his unparalleled creepy voice, but his acting is top notch as well. Interestingly House of Wax is in color whereas his most famous role of Loren in 1959’s House on Haunted Hill would be in grayscale. Between Jarrod skulking about and stalking his prey wearing a black “Jack the Ripper” coat and hat and composer David Buttolph’s haunting score, the atmosphere in this film is exceptionally macabre. If you are frightened or creeped out by wax figures, then you are in for a treat because the cinematography in this film provides many lingering shots of wax figures seemingly staring at you. Perhaps they are crying out for help because they are a prisoner of the museum.Unlike 2005’s House of Wax, this one may not be a cut-and-dry horror film, but that is to its advantage. It’s the whodunit element to the plot that gives this film more substance than its future counterpart.

Movie 10 (10/10)

House on Haunted Hill (1959). Prior to Vincent Price’s House on Haunted Hill there weren’t many movies about haunted house movies. At least, none that have stood the test of time in the way that this film has. While this isn’t a true haunting movie, it certainly contains many of the plot elements and scares used in today’s haunted house movies. Much like the whodunit concept provided House of Wax with a more substantive plot, it also did the same for the plot here. In terms of practical effects, House on Haunted Hill was one of the first to use a pulley system in order to make a skeleton dance across the floor. If you had the pleasure of watching this film when it was first released, you may have been in a theatre where a similar system was rigged up for a skeleton to fly over the audience during that scene. While this may not be a “scary” movie, it is still an important horror movie in the evolution of the American horror film. It came at a pivotal time as screenwriters and directors were slowly transitioning from the classical horror film to the modern. It wouldn’t be until the following year that Alfred Hitchcock would give us the first modern horror film in Psycho. Most memorable in this film is the performance of Vincent Price! From his smirks to macabre gestures to terrifying voice, he is the strongest actor and demonstrates the ability to carry the film. Back stabbings, twists, turns, and a haunting atmosphere give this film brilliant production design and action points. It truly set the standard for the haunted house concept even though it has a whodunit element to it. Future haunting movies would borrow from House on Haunted Hill in order to achieve their desired effects.

Movie 11 (10/11)

The Blob (1958). Happy 60th birthday! This classic 1950s science-fiction horror B-movie has everything that you want in a film of this era. And it’s not just Steve McQueen in the lead role, the whole movie is grossly underrated for it’s entertainment value and contribution to the horror library. Whereas there is little in this film that will induce nightmares. the film is incredibly successful at building up suspense and generating tension through the various levels of conflict. I love the practical effects in this movie. Although the movements of the blob are mostly jerky, it is highly effective at increasing the level of the very disturbing nature of the movie. Interestingly, The Blob was the first movie to specifically target the teenage audience. It was made to provide a great experience in a traditional cinema and drive-ins. There is also some meta aspects to the movie as there is a scene with a horror movie within a horror movie. I loved that! I would totally watch the movie that they were watching at the town cinema. Even for its day, this movie knows precisely what it is, schlock and all. Unlike many modern horror movies, this one does not take itself too seriously yet never stoops to gimmicky plot devices. There is an intangible fun factor with this movie that enables it to be enjoyable 60 years later.

Third group (1960s emergence of the slasher, psychological horror, and the modern zombie)

For an article on the first modern horror film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, click here. I am not covering it for #AllTheHorror because I’ve written many articles on it.

Movie 12 (10/13)

Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho, this voyeuristic horror film was met with a gross amount of negative press, so much so that it completely derailed the career of director Michael Powell. Perhaps this film was ahead of its time. Had it been received more favorably by critics then, it’s entirely possible that it could have earned the moniker “the first modern horror film” instead of Psycho since it was released a month prior. It’s highly disturbing and will give you chills as the victims look into the mirror, watching their faces as they are stabbed to death. It reminds me of a precursor to the torture porn movies that would not appear commercially until the first Saw. Much like Psycho, this film also contains a psychological trauma element in it. Mark, our peeping tom, was forced to watch terrifying experiments that his father would conduct. Whereas this film may have been thought to be shocking for shock-value alone, it is not without its depth. I appreciate this film for its commentary on the theory that we are all voyeurs. Not only is the audience fixated on the actions inside the cinematic window, but they are also enamored by the director who is crafting the story.

Movie 13 (10/14)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Happy 50th birthday! Controversial director Roman Polanski’s cinematic horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby is just as horrifying today as it was when it was released. The tension, suspense, and psychological terror still haunt audiences today just like it did 50 years ago. Inducted into the Criterion Collection, this film was groundbreaking for horror cinema and paved the way for later supernatural horror films like The Exorcist. What I appreciate most about this film is the power to frighten audiences without ever giving the audience something on screen to be frightened of. In fact, we never see Satan’s child. There is unthinkable danger around each corner of this brilliant motion picture. While many post-modern horror films rely primarily upon shock, this film uses the power of that which is horrifyingly inevitable to thrill the audience. Polanski provides lots of exposition in the first act that carries audiences through the rest of the film. Countering the approach from Hitchcock, in which the characters are at the mercy of the plot, Polanski’s characters emerge as real people in a situation that feels incredibly real. This film artfully depicts allegory on rape culture and concerns of what consent means, resulting in a uniquely horrifying story about bodily autonomy and the looming threat of strong and unknown forces. It isn isn’t a rape revenge tale so much as a chilling reminder of the very real threats of assault that women and men face every day. In a masterful fashion, Polanski’s direction enables the characters and plot to transcend the story. It’s that realness that increases the terror felt in the film exponentially.

Movie 14 (10/14)

The Innocents (1961). Based on Henry James’ story The Turn of the Screw, the 1961 The Innocents is a heart-pounding psychological horror film that successfully adds in elements of hauntings and possessions. The film instantly draws you into this seemingly innocent world of gardens, English countryside estates, and orphan children. If you like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, then you will definitely enjoy this film. While some stories suffer in the translation from page to screen, the film cleared up some of the ambiguities from the novel. Unlike many horror films in which most of the most disturbing or frightening moments take place in the dark, director Jack Clayton crafts terrifying moments during the day. The combination of stylistic editing and fantastic cinematography enabled Clayton to provide audiences with an atmosphere of dread during the second and third acts. While the first act may seem as though it starts out slowly, it quickly begins to ramp up the suspense and the anticipation of the dread that is about to befall our central character of Miss Giddens. You may be wondering why the title of this film is The Innocents instead of the novella’s The Turn of the Screw, and that’s because there was a stage adaptation titled The Innocents before the movie. The central theme in this film is the loss of innocence, and it is left up to the audience to conclude whether the phantoms are real or figments of Miss Giddens’ imagination. That being the case, it gives the film a realness that can easily serve as material to discuss in a film studies class. Contributing to the evolution of the horror film, it demonstrably clear that this film provides the horror library with a model of excellence in the haunting and possession sub-genre. Cocktail Party Massacre highlights the film’s subtext of sexual repression and projection. Themes such as human sexuality and past trauma are recurring themes in the American horror film. In fact, many horror films are similar to morality plays. But these plays are told through creative, frightening ways.

Movie 15 (10/15)

Night of the Living Dead (1968). George A. Romero’s timeless horror classic Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking masterpiece in 1968 and continues to inspire today. Although it is not the first zombie movie (that would be White Zombies followed by I Walked with a Zombie), it is the first modern zombie film. Every zombie movie made ever since can trace its roots back to this iconic horror film. When you think of a zombie, this is perhaps what you think of. Place yourself in the seats of 1968 cinema. Eight years prior, Hitchcock gave you the first modern horror film, and other directors began to emerge to craft their horror stories for the screen. While slashers were beginning to develop, hauntings, and possessions also began to emerge, George A. Romero took a shoestring budget and decided to shock audiences with something never seen before (and thankfully before the new MPAA rating system took full-effect). He didn’t invent the zombie, but he did invent THE zombie movie. Since most of us horror fans have seen this multiples times, reviewed it, and even watched documentaries about it, I thought I would talk about the sociological themes found in the film. Themes in Night of the Living Dead include alienation, cannibalism, racism, and identity. Furthermore, there is an interesting question one could ask: who is the true enemy? Understanding the sociological implications of this film come into full view when exploring when the film was released. What was happening at the time? The US was emerging from the height of the civil rights era and the aftermath of the Vietnam war. One of the common theoretical approaches to understanding the themes of this film is to view it as analogy of the US in Vietnam. Moreover, the zombies can be seen as racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation minorities in the US. There are so many approaches to studying this film. Beyond the groundbreaking content and story within the film, Romero also broke ground by making the strong leading man black, which was against the norm of Hollywood at the time (and to some extent today). There is so much to understanding the significance of this film, the power of its storytelling. Entire articles and books have been written on it, but I hope this brief paragraph inspires you to open your mind to the phenomenal nature of Night of the Living Dead.

Movie 23 (10/21) Nope, you’re not counting wrong, I watched this on Oct 21st but it fits in better with this group. Was introduced to this movie by my cinephile penpal in Germany for our weekly concurrent film screening.

Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Even before satires and parodies of the horror genre because popular, Roman Polanski set out to direct a satire on Hammer films. This amusing film takes the tropes of Hammer and vampire films but does it in such a way that it walks a fine line between total satire and parody. Contrary to many satirical and parody films, this one is not entirely laugh out loud funny. In fact, most of the humor is dependent on the audience’s familiarity with Hammer Films. More than a satire though, this is clearly a Roman Polanski film based upon the production design and cinematography. The sets are beautiful and incredibly well used. One may even go so far as to suggest that the Count’s castle is a character in and of itself. Despite being visually stunning, the film is not one that is well-known or familiar to even horror audiences. Hammer Films became famous in the 1950-70s by taking the classic “Universal” monsters and filming them in vivid color for the first time. Most of these films took place in gothic atmospheres and increased the violence compared to the original films in the 1930s. Polanski takes the tropes established by the Hammer monster films and combines it with an approach to comment on the absurdity of the actions in those films. It’s a dark comedy that feels very much ahead of its time. Perhaps had the film been made 20yrs later, then it would be more familiar to general horror audiences. More then the content of this film, because this is one of the last films to star Sharon Tate and the fact that she and her husband Roman are in it together, there is a disconcerting spectre about the film. As you may know, Tate and others were brutally murdered by the Manson cult in 1969. That fact alone makes this film eerie. From the sets to the characters, this is a remarkably entertaining film that is one part whimsical and the other part macabre.

Fourth group (1970s/80s horror, slashers and possessions reign, franchises are born)

Movie 16 (10/16)

Halloween (1978). That music, tho! With a Jack-O-Lantern in almost every scene and a mysterious POV of the killer following by a shocking reveal at the beginning, John Carpenter’s nerve-wrecking thriller Halloween terrified audiences with its home invasion meets slasher to redefine what a horror film could do! In fact, this film is widely regarded as the definitive slasher and was the highest grossing independent film of all time when it was released. Furthermore, Halloween also provides us with the archetype final girl Laurie Strode played by Jamie Lee Curtis (the daughter of Psycho‘s Janet Leigh). There is so much to love about this film that entire books could be written and classes taught on it. It’s funny, exciting, terrifying, and more. It was directed with as much attention to the art of the story as the visceral horror of the action. Much like with Night of the Living Dead,  I don’t seek to review this iconic film per se, but instead want to do a brief film analysis. Heavily influenced by Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov who wrote prolifically on a character arc that was comprised of five stages: equilibrium –> big event upsets the order –> an acknowledgment of what is going on –> begins the path to resolution –> through a showdown, resolution is reached and order is restored. There is a strong feminism theme in the film evident by the strong, independent Laurie who stands her ground and protects herself and the kids. She is never objectified nor painted to be helpless. She typifies the final girl through her androgynous clothing, studious behavior, and the fact she fights with the main villain and survives. With minimal dialogue, Carpenter focused this film on the powerful, memorable visual storytelling told through the creative and effective use of substantive cinematography. Instead of stooping to the inclusion of frame upon frame of gore, Carpenter chooses suspense and tension for these elements provide a film with substance and narrative. Although Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released prior to Halloween, this film truly understood the emerging slasher genre, and perfected it! It is the model on which so many other films are based.

Movie 17 (10/17)

The Exorcist (1973). You’ll never look at pea soup the same way again. Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Coming up on its 45th anniversary, this is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, this film is pivotal in the evolution of the American horror library because it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body. 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. 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. 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.

Movie 18 (10/18)

Halloween (2018). 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. Click here for my full review!

Movie 19 (10/20)

Poltergeist (1982). “They’re [still] here!” More than 35 years later, Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist still terrifies audiences today. Coming off the successes of Spielberg’s Jaws & Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this powerhouse producer-director team (note: Hooper received the official director credit) crafted a horror film that became an instant classic then, and still holds up today. With Spielberg heading up the story and Hooper in the director’s chair, both cinematic geniuses combined their talent for generating material for nightmares to take the “haunted” house film sub-genre of horror to the next level. Storytelling and cinematic elements aside, another primary reason the film still haunts and intrigues audiences today is the lore of a legendary curse attached to this film. For audiences back in 1982, and possibly still to this day, following watching the film, friends may have found themselves only venturing by an alleged haunted house on a dare. The film’s impressive ability to take the haunted house concept up to a level never seen before–in fact–it essentially created the modern haunted house genre seen in today’s horror films. In short, Poltergeist is an icon, and stands alongside films such as PsychoThe Exorcist, and The Shining. Probably the most terrifying element of all is the setting–mundane upper middle class America suburbia. No longer where “haunted” houses confided to old mansions or hotels, but could be located next door to you. That is, if your neighborhood is also built upon a burial ground. Don’t forget to experience the house at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights (CA/FL)! For my full retrospective review of this iconic film, click HERE!

Movie 20 (10/20)

Friday the 13th (1980). Ch ch ch, ah ah ah. The sleepaway summer camp experience was forever changed in the summer of 1980 when a slasher slaughtered a bunch of horny teenagers along the shores of Crystal Lake. Spanning more than three decades and a dozen feature films (too bad it’s not a baker’s dozen, wink), the Friday the 13th franchise made us never look at a hockey mask in the same way after Part 3. This iconic franchise has also found its way back into the headlines with the legal battle over the rights to the Friday the 13th name between the original screenwriter Victor Miller and producer/director Sean S. Cunningham. I recently ran a Twitter poll to determine which is the crowd favorite in the series, and the majority of respondents voted for the original movie, followed by Jason Lives. Like the majority of the 80 respondents in the poll, the original is also my favorite, although it is not a “Jason” movie per se. Releasing in 1980, Friday the 13th helped shape the modern slasher along side Texas Chainsaw Massacre and HalloweenA Nightmare on Elm Street would arrive in 1984. With his trademark hockey mask and machete, very few have lived to tell the tale of their encounter with one of the most terrifying slashers to ever appear on the silver screen. His body count is in the triple digits! From screen to screen, Jason has gone from the cineplex to your TV and computer by way of interactive media. Unlike the campy-ness of Freddy or more focussed kills of Michael, Jason is by far the scariest of his iconic counterparts. My friend Dani is a diehard Jason girl, while I am Freddy and our friend Derek is Leatherface. Let’s take a stab at exploring why this franchise continues to be a favorite! For my full retrospective review, click HERE!

Movie 21 (10/20)

Slumber Party Massacre (1982). Upon several recommendations from podcasters that I follow, I added this to my 31 Horror Movies this month. Slumber Party Massacre knows precisely what it is–a B-movie slasher–it wastes no time in getting to the kills. Because this movie comes on the heels of Halloween and Friday the 13th, there are clearly shots and even sequences taken from those movies. Despite borrowing from those two iconic slasher films, the one key element that it did not borrow is the masked villain. Unfortunately, the fact that our killer did not wear a mask nor costume, disappointed me. I did not find him terrifying, in the same way I do Michael, Jason, and Freddy. However, in the third act of the movie, the killer speaks, and he does become quite frightening. Unlike the classic villains I’ve mentioned that are more conventionally scary, this killer is incredibly creepy. It didn’t take long for movies to take on the tropes established in Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came out just two years after we were first introduced to Camp Crystal Lake and Haddonfield, IL and two years before we would meet my personal favorite horror icon Freddy. The producers, director, and writer of Slumber Party Massacre knew precisely how to get teenagers and 20-30-somethings into the movie theatre, and capitalized on it. With a run time of little more than an hour, it doesn’t try too hard to develop the characters or spend time on subtext or the hero’s journey, it just provides audiences with funny dialogue, over-the-top acting, and an all around fun popcorn horror movie. It plays the camp card close to hokey without ever crossing that line. The movie takes itself seriously enough to enjoy the murder and mayhem without it feeling like a colossal joke. Truth is, there is a quite the degree of social commentary on sex and gender roles. And that drill is totally a phallic symbol. Interestingly, Slumber Party Massacre was written, produced, and directed by women! So yes Mr. Blum, there are female directors interested in the horror genre out there!

Movie 22 (10/20)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)1, 2 Freddy’s coming for you; 3, 4 better lock your door, 5, 6 grab your crucifix, 7, 8 gonna stay up late, 9, 10 never sleep again. If that jingle still sends chills down your spine, you’re not alone. My favorite horror icon is Freddy Krueger. Unlike with other slasher icons who hide behind masks and never speak, I consider Freddy to be the most terrifying because he can talk to his victims and attack you in your sleep–a time in which you are most vulnerable. Moreover, dreams are a private time and he invades that sacred space. Robert Englund is synonymous with Freddy because we get to appreciate the actor’s performance, charisma, and enthusiasm as he is not hidden by a mask. Writer-director Wes Craven’s nightmare on screen has been terrifying audiences for more than 30yrs. Inspired by a series of articles in the LA Times; three small articles about men from Southeast Asia, who were from immigrant families, who died in the middle of nightmares—and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.” From that short series of articles came the movie (turned franchise) that we know and love today. But there is so much more to NoES than the fact it was inspired by truly unexplained deaths during nightmares. On the surface, it appears that the only motivation of Freddy’s kills and trauma-inducing actions is revenge–plain and simple. After all, he was burned alive by the parents of the Elm Street teens. And so he takes his revenge out on the teens and occasionally their parents. Albeit revenge is a classic motivator, it lacks substance; however, there is much more to Freddy than revenge. What truly separates classic Englund Freddy from remake Freddy and from Michael and Jason is his sick commitment to showmanship. It’s just about the kills, it’s about putting on a show for his own amusement. I’ve written before that the horror genre is the best genre for creatively exploring the human condition, questioning standards and observations, providing different perspectives on sociologically, exploring psychology, heteronormativity, and more, often in terrifying ways to get you to think, and NoES certainly gives us lots of material to talk about. At its core, NoES provides ample opportunity to discuss the distinction between dreams and real life, manifesting in the actions of the teens in the film; furthermore, the events of the film transgress the boundary between imagination and reality that provocatively toy with the audience’s perceptions of the real and imagined. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone on crack. For my full retrospective, click HERE.

Movie 24 (10/22)

Alien (1979). “This. Is. Alien. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard the space ship Nostromo. Caution. The a-rea you are entering is extremely dan-ger-ous.” If you get the reference, then we are kindred theme park and horror spirits! Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced you that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film after reinventing what we had in the 1950/60s. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. Just 10 years after the Apollo moon landing, this film takes on characteristics of that which is frightening about this new frontier that we are exploring. What if there is a killing machine monster out there? Scary stuff. Beyond taking the horror genre into space and integrating some of the psychological horror and slasher elements outlined in PsychoHalloween, and others, Scott’s Alien also provided horror audiences with a new type of final girl, social commentary on gender roles, heteronormativity, and human sexuality. Much like the Freudian components of Hitchcock’s Psycho, this horror film also explores the deep fears and desires that are often suppressed by the subconscious. Furthermore, the film also explores the fears associated with child birth by “impregnating” men resulting in body horror trauma. The counterarguments to heteronormativity is manifested in Ellen Ripley as an androgynous female who behaves in a very masculine way, the film provides an opportunity to talk about gender roles. Like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, Ridley is also someone who is equal parts female and male. In fact, you could argue that she takes on more masculine characteristics as the narrative plays. This playing with the roles of men, women, and their respective bodies and minds can be realized when viewing the character of the xenomorph as the “monstrous feminine.” The monstrous-feminine is a psychological construction generated by male anxieties about the female body and sexuality. Scott’s Alien depicts the maternal body as monstrous. More specifically, the film repeatedly examines the scene of birth or origin. Interestingly, there are three different representations of the concept of birth in the film. In terms of the production design, Alien can be likened to a gothic horror set in space. Scott’s brilliant design conveys to the audience the extreme isolation and claustrophobia. There is also an fascinating dichotomy in the worlds that are represented in this film by pitting the mechanization and technology of the organization for which our explorers work and the monstrous origin world of the alien, which we learn more about (whether you like the films or not in the prequels). In case you’re wondering, my quote at the beginning was taken from the former Great Movie Ride attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Movie 25 (10/23)

Pet Sematary (1989). “Sometimes dead is better.” Finishing out my decade of 1970s/80s slashers and possessions that play around with the concepts of internal and external monsters, morality, sex, heteronormativity, and even grief, is the terrifying classic Pet Sematary based on the best-selling Stephen King novel. From the moment the movie opens with shots of a cemetery underscored by an incredibly creepy song, you know that you are in for a horrifying experience that will pit you face to face with death and grief. In addition to the highly effective imagery and song setting the atmosphere of dread that instantly creates this ominous unsettling feeling, there are several shots of the fast-moving semi-trucks that foreshadow the infamous tragic event plunging the characters into crisis. For some reason, this film seems to get lost in horror conversations (that is until more recently with the trailer of the 2019 remake). Fortunately, there appears to be a resurgence in the popularity of the original, so naturally I rewatched it for #AllTheHorror this month. At it’s core, this film deals with the tragic loss of a child and juxtaposes that against the return of that same child. Return of the repressed, or uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud. Credit to the success of this film goes to King and Mary Lambert–see Mr. Blum–a female horror director). Not to mention the fantastic cast including Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne). Horror movies often creatively (and sometimes viscerally) deal with societal taboos. And that practice is quite evident in this film’s depiction of how parents handle the concept of death around their kids. Like many parents, Rachel (Denise Crosby–yes StarTrek TNG) avoids the topic around her children. In order to make true on the promise to protect the kids and cat, this avoidance of death leads Louis to his eventual misguided decision to test the powers of the ancient pet cemetery. Another element that is often overlooked is the angelic/demonic dichotomy between Pascow, the good angel, and Jud, the bad angel (or demon). Both are practically sitting on the shoulders of Louis, directing him what to do. Is there anything more terrifying than a baby on a slaughterous rampage? With only a little violence and gore (compared to the rest of the movie), Lambert was able to craft a nightmare-inducing horror film that forced us to face the concept of death.

Movie 26 (10/28)

Suspiria (1977). In preparation for the remake of the Dario Argento visual horror masterpiece, I watched the original with my cinephile friend and penpal in Germany. So much to love here! It’s hard to know even where to begin. From the angles, framing, and colors, I knew from the opening scene that I was in store for a masterful work of art. Not to mention that haunting score! While I’ve long thought that the beginning to Scream was one of the most intense and brilliant horror film openings, I am now left with Suspiria having the most intense opening! It was a non-stop rollercoaster that was bloody and beautiful. While American 70s horror contained far more off screen violence than on, this film broke the mold and gave us closeups of stabbings and plate glass window slicing and more. It was shocking and mesmerizing. There is a deeply unnerving experience that leaves an impact that remains with you for the rest of the movie. Stylistically, Argento displays a keen eye and penchant for long, sustained shots that truly immerses the audience into the story. Where this film lacks plot–and it does–it makes up for in Salvador Dali surreal moments that evoke heightened senses through hyper-sensitive sequences of visual horror. It’s not enough to attempt to capture into the words the film as it is more of an experience than coherent narrative. Argento’s use of deep primary colors and sharp angles provides the film with this almost hallucinatory effect that is reinforced by the pioneering electronic score by himself and performed by the electronica band Goblin. One of the things that I picked up on while watching this movie was the connection to German expressionism. While it was certainly instrumental in the development of the American horror film, the production design and lighting largely became less pronounce in more modern movies. However, this Italian horror film still holds true to the designs and lighting that greatly shaped the horror films we love today.

Fifth group 90s horror (rise of psychological and meta horror, horror in everyday situations, and nightmares manifested)

Movie 27 (10/28)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991). “Good evening, Clarice.” How many of you have never thought of fava beans and chianti in the same way since then? Quite literally inventing a new genre that combines elements of horror, suspense, and crime to create the crime thriller, The Silence of the Lambs remains the motion picture that typifies the genre. More than 27 years later, Silence still holds up and continues to terrify audiences today. Whereas this iconic film may not be considered horror, by today’s understanding and expectation by many, it was certainly widely considered horror when it was released in 1991. A sleepy success, I might add. Essentially, Silence is an indie film that flew in under the radar but soon grew to be immensely popular and critically acclaimed. Silence is also one of only three films to win “the big five” Academy Awards (picture, director, lead actor, lead actress, and screenplay). This, in and of itself, serves as demonstrable evidence that The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential and profound films of all time–across all genres. Furthermore, there is not one single moment that I would change because it is cinematically perfect just the way it is. It is arguably a dark crime-thriller, but it is also very much a horror film. When asked which category I put it in, I respond with horror. Why? Because there is certainly intent to horrify audiences during particular scenes in the film; whereas, a crime-thriller tends to not overly concern itself with the intent to horrify. The intent to horrify is what defines it as a horror film first and crime-thriller as a very close second. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most iconic films in cinema history and will continue to have an evergreen shelf-life. It’s a multidimensional motion picture that frightens and intrigues. It is an arthouse film that achieved commercial success. From the buildup to the introduction of Dr. Lecter to the trademark moth cocoon in the throat of the original victim. Furthermore, Demme continues to drive up the suspense and tension that create frightening thoughts and imagery through the use of interiors and exteriors of houses and buildings that represent the minds of characters (i.e. Buffalo Bill’s house and lair). We continue to seek this film out for its ability to manipulate our minds and eyes through strategic and artistic use of story and image. And you know what? We love these characters. We like and can identify with Clarice, have an unconventional respect and even like Dr. Lecter, and are completely intrigued and disgusted by Buffalo Bill.

Movie 28 (10/29)

Misery (1990). Do your ankles still hurt when you think of this film? Following the successful adaptation of Pet Sematary, the next book to receive a screen translation is the terrifying Misery. Starring Kathy Bates, James Caan, with a supporting role by the incomparable Lauren Bacall, this film reminds me of a King film directed by Hitchcock. But, it’s not directed by Hitch; it’s directed by Rob Reiner whom also directed the wildly successful and definitive coming of age film Stand By Me. Clearly, Reiner studied Alfred Hitchcock’s methods for shooting a thriller. Evidence of this tone is witnessed in the framing, character blocking, and lingering shots. In fact, I argue that if you were to replace Reiner’s name with Hitchcock’s, it would be easy to convince (non cinephile’s) that it was in fact directed by the Master of Suspense. Reiner provides audiences with one of the most iconic horror films from the 90s that holds up incredibly well. Even with the typewriter, the sheer terror that Caan’s character of Paul Sheldon felt as he was kept prisoner by his sadistic No.1 fan Annie Wilkes (Bates). One of the biggest differences between the book and movie is the famous and painful hobbling scene. The book depicts Annie chopping off one of Paul’s feet versus the crippling of the ankles in the movie. I think this was a good choice because I feel strongly that this sledgehammer scene is far more painful than the former. I mean, every time I see a sledgehammer, I am reminded of this scene even to this day. Misery also takes a minimalistic approach to the American horror film, much in the same way Hitch crafted a brilliant suspense film in Dial M for Murder. Much like the Hitch classic, Reiner’s Misery is also one that largely takes place in one location (only flanked by quick moments in others). The combination of truly appalling, gut wrenching, darkly humorous, and sadistically amusing nature of this film enables it to hold up incredibly well and boasts one of the single most horrific scenes in horror cinema history.

Movie 29 (10/29)

New Nightmare (1994). Before “meta horror” became commonplace to the point that the once innovative concept has become all too cliche, Wes Craven wrote and directed his triumphant return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (although, he did co-write Dream Warriors). Made, not only for horror fans but also for general horror audiences, New Nightmare is a horror film within a horror film that successfully dances the line between reality and fantasy. One can easily liken that to the very character of Freddy Krueger who exists in our dreams but can inflect real pain. A fascinating parallel! Craven’s revolutionary approach to one of the most iconic franchises in horror history begs the question asked of horror filmmakers whether the effects of the diegesis on screen cross over into the real world, affecting the actions and thoughts of people who love to watch horror films. Beyond the meta nature of the plot of New Nightmare, there is also a self-reflexive element to the plot because the story, lore, and movies of Freddy loops back on itself by confronting the creators of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wes, Robert “Bob” Shaye, Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and even future horror star Lin Shaye (Robert’s sister) are all playing themselves, and even referencing the Nightmare movies in the same way we do. Heather even references all the movies in the franchise, not just the one’s she’s in. While other franchises force a reboot or revival in order to bring back an iconic horror icon–by way of just chalking the return up to being a superhuman, resurrected, or supernatural with little to no reasoning–New Nightmare provides evidence (albeit supernatural) for why more Freddy films need to be made. Therefore, Freddy will appear in one more movie (two more, if you count this one). One more, because we do not count the 2010 remake (it does not exist). While few will dispute that the original A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, it is quite possible that this self-reflexive entry is the second best. During graduate school, when studying horror films, I used Carol Clover’s pleasurable unpleasure and Freud’s uncanny often when exploring the subtext and themes of horror. Both of these theoretical approaches to reading and understanding horror films are clearly visible in this brilliant story. We get pleasure out of and attracted to that which should repulse us. Therefore, we do not want Freddy to be dead. In many ways, we need Freddy to live, and New Nightmare brings Freddy back for an encore in the present story and Freddy vs Jason. Of course, we’ve had the first appearance of Robert Englund as Freddy in last week’s Halloween episode of The Goldbergs and there is massive social media support for Englund to play Freddy one last time.

Movie 30 (10/30)

Scream (1996). What’s your favorite scary movie? Master of Horror Wes Craven redefined meta horror with what many argue is the definitive example Scream. Although I prefer New Nightmare to Scream, there is no doubt that Scream is the more popular and truly more meta horror film that not only comments on itself but the slasher genre in general. And I also really like Scream. If for no other reason than the most brilliant, shocking opening to a horror movie ever. Craven took what Hitch pioneered in Psycho and amped up the speed at which a popular actress is killed. Whereas Marion Crane was killed off within the first act. Craven kills off American darling Drew Barrymore in the prologue of the film! Still to this day, the opening scene in Scream is still the most terrifying opening ever. However, after recently watching Suspiria for the first time, I’d like to compare the two in the future to see which is more frightening and effective. With the general public, let alone horror fans, becoming all too knowledgable of the rules of horror films thus possessing the ability to predict the outcome and plot turning points, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven crafted a horror ilm to change the rules by using them as a plot device to completely deconstruct the American horror film slasher genre. By killing off Drew Barrymore at the beginning, this communicated to the audience that all bets are off. But more than a satirical horror film, this film is equally scary. Whereas Scary Movie (the original title to Scream) would do similar things but through parody, slapstick and dark comedy, Scream maintains a serious tone throughout the film and never falls into parody. This serious approach is one of the reasons why this innovative film performed incredibly well then and still holds up today. Highly entertaining! This film holds your attention from beginning to end through an incredibly well-developed plot, complex characters, and conflict driven by the actions of the characters. This plot is simple–brilliant–but simple. By relying upon the characters to carry the story, the movie contains more subtext and substance than many others. When you have a character-driven plot, you need solid actors to bring it to life. And all the performances by the principal characters are absolutely perfect for the film. Everyone is so committed to their respective characters. Like bookends, the ending and beginning answer one another.Just as shockingly intense the opening scene is, the climax of the film is surprisingly noteworthy as well, and threw audiences for a loop as it abandons more conventional endings.

Movie 31 (10/30)

Hocus Pocus (1993).

SISTA’S! Tis time! Originally, I was planning to see the new Suspiria on Halloween night, but when I got to the one cinema that was showing it, it was sold out. So, I decided to write up my 31st review on Hocus Pocus, which I saw on Halloween Eve. I am so glad that Disney decided to release my favorite Disney Halloween movie back in cinemas for a limited run in celebration of this cult classic’s 25th anniversary. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think a Halloween season goes by that I do not watch this incredibly funny movie. The first time I saw it, I was in late elementary or early middle school; and ever since then, I’ve watched it every year (and often in April too, because it’s halfway to Halloween). Receiving top billing for this Disney classic is the Divine Miss M Bette Midler as Winnifred Sanderson! Supporting Midler is the endearing Kathy Najimy as Mary and Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah. When the film was released in summer of 1993, it was pretty much panned by most of the critics. I’m still baffled why Disney chose to release this 100% Halloween movie in the middle of the same summer that Jurassic Park was released. Despite the negative reviews, this simple film may have first been perceived as an ugly ducking, but over the years, it has become a beautiful swan! It found its place quickly amongst the Disney and LGBTQ communities. I am hard pressed to find a member of either community that does not like the film except for Brock of Cocktail Party Massacre who HATES this film. At the end of the day, this is a FUN, magical film! There is literally nothing that I do not like about it. I even dressed as Winnie a few Halloweens ago and received rave reviews. In many ways, our three witches can be viewed as drag queens, and perhaps that’s why these characters resonate with the queer community. The practical effects are great. And I don’t mean great in that the effects in that they were oh so realistic. But they were FUN, they were creative, they were believable within the world that director Kenny Ortega created on screen. This film knew that it was campy, and it went full camp! I love it. Keeping it entertaining and sexy, there is physical comedy, witty humor, two incredible cameos from TV/film royalty and material for kids and adults. And that “I Put a Spell on You” number is among my favorite Disney songs. I had the phenomenal opportunity to hear Bette Midler perform that song in her Divine Intervention concert tour in 2015 tribute to Hocus Pocus. Hearing that song live, in full costume, is a memory that I will have for a lifetime.

Here’s to the 31 horror/Halloween movies that I rewatched or watched for the first time during October. Next year, I will begin with the mid 90s and work my way to present day.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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