“Doctor Sleep” horror film review

A brilliantly unsettling and crisp horror film! Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is both an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, by the same name, and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This highly anticipated film had the unusual task to fit the Kubrick film and King’s novel The Shining, since it is well known that King was not happy with the Kubrick adaptation. Although many unplanned sequels to iconic classics are challenged to justify their own existence, and often fail to live up to the magic of the original, Flanagan defies the fate that so often befalls sequels and delivers a compelling film worthy to be connected to Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece. While the specter of Kubrick is lurking in the background, and our foreground story takes place on the backdrop of The Overlook Hotel complete with the presence of Jack Torrance, it isn’t merely grown-up Danny whom shines in this film. Both Danny’s young counterpart Abra (Kyleigh Curran) and the mesmerizing villainous Rose “Rosie” the Hat (Rebecca Furguson) shine brightly against the macabre imagery and themes. Doctor Sleep takes audiences to some very dark places–a no holds barred approach–that will surely get under your skin and cause you to cringe at the vile actions on screen in Rose the Hat’s quest for ostensible immortality. There is something irresistible about returning to the infamous Overlook Hotel, and this film knows that you are mostly in the auditorium because of anticipating the trade mark carpet, Navajo-deco interior design, and bloody elevators, and holds that ace up its sleeve until the third act. Whereas the storytelling could have taken the easy way out, knowing that you would blindly accept virtually everything as long as you get to check back into The Overlook, it still offers a compelling, challenging narrative that brilliantly sets up the showdown at the most infamous hotel in all literature. Combining the best of the King novel with the haunting imagery and ominous atmosphere of Kubrick’s masterpiece, this film surpasses the expectations and apprehensions most of us had when we knew the legacy shoes this sequel had to fill.

On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless-mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul… (IMDb)

Where do you go when you never want to see snow again? Florida or Southern California. And that is precisely where this film opens up (but it’s obviously Georgia). However, not with young Danny Torrence, we meet a kid whom encounters Rose the Hat and her “friends.” The audience is immediately hooked to the story after tragedy befalls the young lady. Mean while, across town at the same time, young Danny gets visited by that iconic “bathing beauty” from Room 237. Following a chance encounter with Dick Hallorann, Danny learns how to take control of the haunts of his past that are just as hungry as Rose the Hat is for the energy from that which creates the shine. While Danny may be able to contain the manifestations of the horror of his past, the experience at The Overlook and the untimely death of his mother had a profound, far reaching effect upon the direction of his life. As an adult, he, much like his father, turned to alcohol to dampen the trauma. After waking up next to the dead body of a coke-addict, he heads for New Hamshire. Precisely why is never fully explained; but it’s there that he meets an angel of sorts that sets him up for a successful return from the life of an addict to a fully-functional adult.

From operating a train in the town square (which you’ll recognize as Mystic Falls from The Vampire Diaries complete with the the clocktower and awning of the Mystic Grill in the background–I’m serious–you can read myst… on it, haha) to using his shinning ability to help those in a hospice pass from this world onto the next, the memories of The Overlook become more and more distant. All seems like it’s going well, until he begins to pickup the voices of those whom are being targeted and hunted by Rose the Hat’s gang. I love how the setup in Act I perfectly positioned our three lead characters for the gripping conflict that Act II brought about. Every scene, every moment of the film acts as a visual sentence in a larger paragraph, and those paragraphs are part of the entire story. Each one, a building block that consistently points to the resolution of the film. Never once does the films pacing lag. That’s not to say that it’s not a slow burn. After the shocking opening, it is a slow burn until midway through the film, then the pace quickens exponentially. That being said, the moments that are slower paced still feel perfect for the story that is unfolding. Slowly winding like a music box, the tension increases steadily as it draws you in closer and closer to the central conflict. With each child killed by Rose the Hat’s cult True Knot, the horrifying nature of the violent acts weigh heavily on your mind and heart as the terrifying creepiness of the war that being waged grows closer and closer to home.

Even more than the performances of Ewan and Kyleigh, it is Furguson’s Rose the Hat that steals the show every moment that she is on screen. The friend I was watching this with leaned over to me and said “I want to be her for Halloween next year.” Rose is a strikingly beautiful, seductive, siren like neo-hippie that looks like she just stepped out of a Rolling Stones concert. Everything from her stunning eyes to the rhyme and meter of how she delivers her “hi there” works absolutely perfectly. One might say that she steals the show in very much the same manner that Nicholson’s Jack steals the spotlight at every turn in The Shining. She is the best kind of character of opposition (for all intents and purposes villain), one that you love to hate and love to see on screen. She is vile she-devil, but how she goes about her conquest is fascinating. Ewan McGreggor’s performance as Danny is solid; nothing outstanding about it in particular but a strong performance that convinces us that he IS the adult version of the boy on the tricycle. I appreciate the transformation we witness as he goes from drifter to hero. Shining along side Danny is Kyleigh’s Abra, a newcomer to the big screen that echoes young Danny in The Shining, but a more developed character that actively takes control of her fate.

By far, my favorite part of the movie is when we return to The Overlook. I absolutely love how we watch Kyleigh and Danny drive the windy snowy road through the night to the infamous mountain lodge tucked deep in the Colorado Rockies. Despite the boarded up windows on the derelict hotel, the grandeur of The Overlook is just as present and powerful in 2019 as it was in 1980. Remember that scene of Jack and the hotel manager from The Shining? That same office is used as the doctor’s office at the hospice center. So, not all the homages to Kubrick’s masterpiece are at the hotel, some are sprinkled throughout the rest of the film. You get it all, callbacks to the bloody elevator, the typewriter, the sinister twins, bath lady, and more. While strolling through the dark, twisted hallways of The Overlook, Danny finds himself in the Gold Room where he encounters his Lloyd at the bar, tempting him with his vice. And as tradition has it, his bar tender is the former caretaker. And as such his bartender is Jack Torrance (played by discount Jack Nicholson). With such a great connection to the original film, the fact that this actor looked but not sounded like Jack Nicholson took me out of the film a little. Not to the point that it ruined the experience, but I have to acknowledge this shortcoming. That being said, it’s not so much that the actor is not Jack Nicholson, but I think having Jack Nicholson ADR the few lines that this Jack has would have helped to bridge the character gap between the original and this one. Some of the recasting worked brilliantly; the recasting of Wendy, young Danny, and Dick was spot on!

If you’re a fan of The Shining, then I highly recommend that you watch this film. If by some chance that you’ve been living under a rock and not seen The Shining, then you will still enjoy the film if you’re a horror fan. While this film may not be as terrifying as the first time we checked into The Overlook, it has many frightening moments. Any worries you have that this “not asked for sequel” is going to fail to deliver that which you want to see in a sequel, you needn’t worry! I hope you return to The Overlook very soon.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“IT: Chapter 2” Horror Movie Review

The larger, less terrifying chapter. Return to Derry, Maine with the Losers Club as they once again face the nightmarish clown Pennywise. With expectations set incredibly high from the critical and box office success of the first chapter, chapter 2 had some major clown shoes to fill. And was it successful? That is mostly up to the individual audience members; however, from a critical perspective, the second chapter falls short of the first one in both character and plot. While there are some scary moments (mostly driven by jump-scares) and some good character-driven moments, as a whole, the movie feels bloated for time, poorly paced, unintentionally campy, and not nearly as creepy as the first one. Even though I did not question the run time when it was announced, there is not enough plot to effectively justify the nearly 3-hour length of the movie. For example, you spend about a third of the movie in flashbacks that do little to advance the plot but thankfully provide some additional context for the characters. Although the movie chronologically takes place 27 years after the first one, it has only been two years for us, but the second chapter plays out as a sequel that is many years separated from the original. Whereas I am not impressed by the plot, I am incredibly impressed with the outstanding casting. The resemblance that the adult characters have to the teenage characters is uncanny. Solid performances all the way around, although none stick out to me as outstanding. Had this movie been in the neighborhood of 2-2.25hrs, then I believe that there would have been enough plot; but as it is, it was stretched too thin. I appreciated the original for expertly crafting the atmosphere of dread and delivering terrifyingly creepy moments not primarily reliant upon jump-scares; but this second chapter seems to fall victim to sequelitis and revert to using jump-scares more than the art of crafting suspense with the camera. At the end of the day, this is a fun way to kick off your Halloween season, but perhaps this isn’t THE movie that defines the Halloween horror season. Still, if you’re planning to attend Halloween Horror Nights Orlando or Hollywood, then this will still suffice as a solid way to kick off the season.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club thought they defeated IT. But Pennywise has returned to the sleepy town of Derry. Following the occurrences several mysterious missing children and teenagers and a Pennywise sighting, Mikey calls all his old friends back to Derry, with little explanation as to why, other than IT has returned. The group of old friends must band together and face their respective fears, past traumas, and deepest darkest secrets that have been eating away at them all these years.

If Derry was supposed to be characterized as a backwards town, then this movie does its job. I don’t think that anyone is going to desire to visit the quaint town steeped in death and bigotry. The opening of the movie is shocking, hooking you into the twisted world that is Derry, Maine. Unfortunately, the provocative opening feels largely disconnected from the rest of the  movie, except it serves to forcibly position Mikey in a place from where he sees Pennywise has returned to his hometown. The next sequence of scenes shows us the present lives of the members of the Losers Club and the reactions to the news that IT may not have been dead after all. Every one of the members of the Losers Club except for Mikey left the small town and built successful winning careers for themselves. Once the Losers Club is back together again, all hell breaks loose in the sleepy hamlet throws its worst at them. One of the disadvantages of one chapter having child actors and another chapter adult actors (portraying the same characters) is the increased risk of there being a disconnect between the audience and the characters. Moreover, that disconnect can affect the audience in such a way that the degree of empathy felt for a character mitigates. That is the case with IT Chapter 2. Since much of the character development was in Chapter One with the child actors, we are thrown back into this world with different actors and simply do not ultimately care deeply what happens to the characters. We care, but not as much as if we followed the same actors or we were provided with sufficient character development in this chapter. We simply don’t care enough about these characters (played by these incredible actors).

One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting that I feel IT Chapter 2 broke was allowing the flashback to encroach upon, if not become more interesting than the main story. Until a writer knows how to effectively use flashbacks, it is important to stay away from them because flashback abuse is all too easy. Few movies that make significant use of the flashback have done so in such a way the the stories are just as interesting as each other or make the main story even more intriguing. My go-to example of a film that makes brilliant use of flashbacks is the Americana classic Fried Green Tomatoes. The reason why flashbacks work in that movie is because both the stories from the past and present are just as interesting as one another; furthermore, the characters in the past help us to develop the characters in the present. Character development is strong all the way around, and the characters mirror one another in many respects. In short, the main plot is always moving forward, even the flashbacks provide direction for the main story. Unfortunately, the prolific use of flashbacks in IT: Chapter 2, come off as a lazy plot device that serves to drag down the pacing of the main story. In fact, there are so many flashbacks that are misused that it adds a signifiant amount of run time to the movie that could have been cut out to streamline the plot. Had there not been such a large sum of flashbacks, then the story may have exhibited better pacing and not felt so bloated just to be a nearly 3hr movie.

Seems like everyone wants to be a 3hr movie nowadays. The problem therein is that, in all likelihood, there lacks sufficient plot to cover three hours. It’s important for a writer to not only show scenes of characters facing conflict, but the writer needs to show the character’s reaction to the conflict. Much like with a screenplay as a whole, a well-written scene has a setup–conflict–resolution. This movie is often missing the resolution in the individual scenes. I still don’t know why we have the date gone wrong at the beginning of the movie other than to make the statement that this movie seeks to normalize that which should be seen as normal or that this is a progressive movie. Furthermore, we make the assumption from Chapter 1 that Richie is gay and even see some evidence to suggest it further in Chapter 2 as this is the deep dark secret that has been eating away at him for most of his life. Richie’s character-driven subplot and the opening scene could have been helped by including the scene from the book in which Bowers explores his sexuality with a friend because that would setup the inner conflict and denial that manifests itself in his treatment of Richie and violent behavior towards others. However, we never revisit this–what could’ve been an excellent–character moment. I think it’s great to have a diverse, inclusive cast of characters, but don’t start a subplot or setup character development that will go nowhere or is merely a plot device to explain something.

While horror movies are no strangers to camp, both literally and figuratively, this movie is unintentionally campy. A campy movie is one that intentionally contains extreme or perverse imagery that boasts an amusing quality that uses exaggerated genre or thematic tropes that over-emphasize an element of the movie. Camp is intentional. When camp is accidental, there is the chance that the director can capture lightning in a bottle, but that is not usually the cade. IT: Chapter 2 is not campy in the costuming, production design, or dialogue, but in the oversized monsters throughout the movie. From the giant old naked lady with her saggy boobs to the random Paul Bunyan statue coming to life, there are giant monsters seemingly everywhere. And it’s not simply the presence of the monsters, although I thought it reached ridiculous proportions, but the movement and purpose of them is what I call into question. The small creatures were great, but the large ones were not terrifying at all–more like laughable. Other than the initial jump scare, the monsters don’t help the level of terror at all.

Now, there is one scene in particular that is probably the scariest of all, and it’s the scene that takes place under the bleachers. I won’t go into spoilers. With all these monstrous creatures and jump-scares, the movie lacks in the same atmosphere of dread that made the first one work so incredibly well. It’s the little things that were scariest in the original. Speaking of the little things, Pennywise definitely stepped up his game in this one. There are so many nuances to his character and the performance that are terrifying–especially for those with a phobia of clowns. If any element is just as good, if not improved over chapter one, it is Pennywise, expertly portrayed by Bill Skarsgard.

Even though you may have to set your expectation bar a little lower, compared to the original, in order to best experience this horror movie, a true horror fan will still enjoy the movie. Perhaps not as much as the original, but it’s still a solid way to start the Halloween horror season. Speaking of which, Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Hollywood open up this weekend! Consider starting with or pairing your theme park haunts with this movie.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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“Pet Sematary” (2019) horror film review

“Sometimes dead is better.” Unless you’re back from the dead with a vengeance! Brace yourself for the spine-chilling, immensely terrifying 2019 adaptation of the best-selling novel Pet Sematary by the legendary Stephen King. Whereas many remakes/reboots of earlier horror films often suffer, this one emerges from the soured soil as a force to be reckoned with. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer deliver a heartpounding rollercoaster of a nightmarish experience as Pet Sematary opens everywhere this weekend. Instead of a direct from page to screen adaptation, much like the fantastic 1989 original version (and yes, it still holds up), this version takes some creative liberties; however, the soul of the novel and even the 1989 version is clearly there. This creative latitude enabled the film to deliver new, surprising scares that are sure to frighten you. If you haven’t seen the extended trailers–DON’T–cannot say that enough. It’s best to go into this film with only the name and the initial teaser trailer in your mind. Not a spoiler, because it’s well known this this horror film and novel deals with loss, grief, and the uncanny (i.e. the return of the repressed), so the challenge of this adaptation was to force the conflict to derive from those issues and inspire the hellish events for which the story is well known. 2019’s Pet Sematary delivers in spades–quite literally. You will feel the ominous sense of dread from the moment the Creeds move into their new house and that feeling will stay with you as you are buried in a nightmare. This plot is solid.

I joined the popular podcast Mike Mike and Oscar to discuss this film, so click below to listen to the show. You are also invited to continue reading my written review.

Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home. When tragedy strikes, Louis turns to his neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), setting off a perilous chain reaction that unleashes an unspeakable evil with horrific consequences (IMDb summary). Sometimes dead is better

Let’s address the white ‘el’ephant in the room first. And I don’t mean the major plot twist changed from the novel and 1989 film that we saw in the trailer (c’mon, this is a well-known story and trailer at this point)–I mean the dialogue. Is the dialogue horribly bad? No. But it’s definitely the weak element in the script. Fortunately, this movie makes up for that with incredible windup, excellent deliveries, and the fact it is nightmarishly creepy. The pacing and tone are excellently crafted, and the visuals are fantastic. Never one does this film attempt to prove that it’s better than the original; in fact, it takes what many of us love about the original and use those moments as expertly designed fake-outs and false setups that are followed with something new and fun. So, it acknowledges the original without remaking it. Furthermore, it integrates many elements from the novel and original into the plot seamlessly. Achieving an overwhelming sense of dread from the very beginning of a horror film is quite difficult. That sense of unease is a combination of the atmosphere, setting, and ominous visual elements. Not five minutes into this movie, you are feeling that sense that something is definitely not right about this place. Yes, this is in part because many of us know what is to come; but even for new folks, the evil of this place can be felt all over your body. One of the creepiest scenes features the warped mirror image of an earlier cheerful moment, but it has been affected by the sour soil of the ancient burial ground.

While there isn’t much time to develop these characters, the writers were challenged with developing them enough for the story, and it works pretty well. The script isn’t quite as well-written as IT, but the margin of difference is not tremendously wide wither. As much of a fan of the original version as I am, there are areas that this version got better. For instance, the Zelda subplot–much more organically integrated into the main plot of Pet Sematary and even drives the main plot forward by revealing aspects to Rachel’s character. Two things for sure, these are two bad parents and Jud is an irresponsible neighbor. We don’t spend much time in the campus hospital where Luis Creed works, but we still get the big event of the passing of Pascow. Pascow’s character, whereas his harbinger of death or Jacob Marley (as so eloquently put by Mike Mike and Oscar) character isn’t as integral to the plot of this version, he looks more terrifying and doesn’t take a turn for the humorous. Of all the characters, I was most curious about John Lithgow’s performance as Jud. I was cautiously optimistic because Lithgow often has a way of delivering memorable performances, no matter how minor the role. His expression of Jud differs from that of Fred Gwynne’s but he still stays true to the character of Jud. And there are even moments that he channels Gwynne’s interpretation of the infamous neighbor. Just wish he had a Maine accent since he is still a local boy in this village (which is very close to Derry, according to a road sign). One of the best scenes in the movie take place as Lousi and Jud sit around a campfire, drinking, smoking and having an ill–fated heart-to-heart.

Contemporary remakes of earlier horror films often rely upon CGI versus practical effects. Cast that worry away because other than a few moments of CG, there are lots of fantastic practical effects from set design to the kills. There is such a high level of authenticity in everything the camera allows us to see, and even those moments that lie just off screen. Yes, there is still the inescapable supernatural factor in this story, but everything else is pretty well grounded in reality. From the parents building a fence to the proximity of the ancient burial ground, everything works to craft an authentic setting and characters. And yes, your Achilles tendon will still hurt in that famous kill. The directors truly seem to take into account that you cannot replace the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. Out two houses, the characters, and Church the cat exist in the time and space of each and every scene. With the exception a couple scenes that were not necessary or drawn out too far, they all work quite well to setup the following scene and point to the end of the film. There are moments that will cause you to look under beds, under stairs, and even analyze your pet more when you get home. For young audience members, watching this story for the first time, I imagine that they will be terrified just like I was when I saw the 89 one as a kid.

While I’ve read reviews claiming that this is the best Stephen Kind page to screen adaptation, I feel that other films have been more effective. Off the top of my head, I’d say that Misery is a better film both in terms of its cinematic critical value and faithfulness to the novel. Not to mention the Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes! No mistaking it, 2019’s Pet Sematary is a good horror movie and one that has a moderate level of rewatchability. Highly recommend for horror fans!

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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Twitter: RLTerry1

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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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John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” full review

Stephen King meets The Twilight Zone in this underrated Carpenter film! It isn’t often that I am introduced to a, what should be a well-known, horror film that is completely unknown by me. There are certainly many indie and obscure horror films that I am unfamiliar with; but because this is a Carpenter film in my lifetime, I should have known about it! Thankfully my penpal, fellow cinephile, and friend Leon in Germany selected this gem for our weekly film screening. Each week we take turns selecting a different film for us to watch. Sometimes it’s a movie that one of us likes and wants to share, other time, it’s a film that neither of us have seen but want to. This was the former. When Leon asked if I’ve seen In the Mouth of Madness, I replied with I haven’t even heard of it. When he told me it was John Carpenter in 1994, I was shocked! And is stars Dr. Alan Grant and Damian himself, Sam Neil! You may be wondering why you have not heard of this film, and that is most likely because it performed poorly at the box office and was panned by critics. Fortunately, a small cult following has developed over the years, but it’s largely still an obscure mid-90s horror film. The reason for this is likely because the film has been accused of difficult to follow, but I do not believe that to be true. It’s true if you need to be held by the hand through the plot, but this film is one of those that has so much depth that you will want to be fully engaged in every minute, every frame. In the Mouth of Madness contains many Stephen King, and Twilight Zone elements that truly make this incredibly rewatchable. The cinematography and score are beautiful, and I find the screenwriting fascinating! I’d even venture to conclude that this is Carpenter’s final masterpiece. Carpenter’s vision of John Trent’s (Neil) descent into madness is terrifyingly spine-chilling.

Summary: When horror novelist Sutter Kane (Jürgen Prochnow) goes missing, insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) scrutinizes the claim made by his publisher, Jackson Harglow (Charlton Heston), and endeavors to retrieve a yet-to-be-released manuscript and ascertain the writer’s whereabouts. Accompanied by the novelist’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), and disturbed by nightmares from reading Kane’s other novels, Trent makes an eerie nighttime trek to a supernatural town in New Hampshire. (IMDb)

Go into this movie with an open mind. I highly recommend this because I still do not fully understand everything. But. That is the beauty of this film. There are so many layers that you can peel back and do a close reading. Perhaps this film was ahead of its time in that there is a meta nature to the experience of watching this film. The central character of Trent must discern what is fantasy and what is reality; and by extension, we are challenged, as the audience, to very much the same task. We must decide if the imagery before our eyes is reality or fantasy, to be taken literally or figuratively. While meta films are much more popular now, it was highly experimental back in 1994/95. The beauty of horror is its ability to force us into uncomfortable places in which we come face to face with that which terrifies us–sometimes to our very core. And what is more terrifying than the possibility you may be crazy or a hoax is attempting to gaslight you? When our very psyche feels under attack, it’s fight or flight.

We are drawn into the story because we are naturally drawn to the repulsive, because there is a subconscious masochistic desire to experience a pleasurable unpleasure. Much like in Sunset Boulevard where we are not concerned or preoccupied with what happens to Joe Gillis (since we know he’s dead from the opening scene), we are profoundly curious about HOW he winds up floating facedown in a swimming pool. We can liken that to In the Mouth of Madness because we know Trent, whether sane or insane (though, that is a legal term), is institutionalized and placed in the padded room. Once we flash back to a few weeks earlier, we are morbidly curious as to how this otherwise intelligent, rational man winds up a prisoner of his own mind.

Another question that the film confronts us with is the power of literature. Is it possible for a writer to be so incredibly popular, and enough people become engrossed in the words that the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point that people begin to believe that the “fictional” characters and setting are a real place? That is certainly a powerful concept to tackle in a low-budget horror film. But Carpenter was never one to shy away from a bold concept or statement. It’s clear that the film is a commentary on the prolific writing and power of the words of authors like King or Lovecraft. Furthermore, the film suggests that there is a transcending power of the text to nest in the subconscious to tap into primal fears and carnal actions. Trent slowly comes to realize that the readers of Kane’s works have been placed under a spell, of sorts, that predisposes them to taking on the characteristics of the literary characters and giving themselves over to behaving like the monsters that are written about in Kane’s novels.

Kane likens his books to the Bible in a sacrilegious attempt to prove that if you convince enough people to read your books that you can control them, and ostensibly become a god. Kane certainly displays signs of a god-complex; he seeks to be in control over not only his fictional Hobbs End but the whole world. And instead of taking over the world by physical force, he seeks to take over the world through the power of the written word. It’s a fascinating concept to think about, and perhaps you can think of books that have greatly influenced society to the point that behavior changed. Can a book truly spark widespread delusions and paranoia? Trent certainly believes so. I love how this feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone on crack. The power and success of The Twilight Zone is due in large part to the show’s ability to comment on societal behavior through the use of bizarre or shocking imagery. Pose a big question grounded in reality, then use science-fiction, fantasy, or horror as a vehicle to explore various perspectives and possible outcomes.

John Carpenter provide us with a fantastic score that will penetrate you all the way down to the bone. It’s both shocking and beautiful all at the same time. Originally Carpenter desired to have Metalica score the film, but the combination of not fitting into the budget and an unwillingness to license the rights left John to compose his own score that mimicked what he wanted from Metalica. The score of In the Mouth of Madness was not intended to be spooky but to keep the audience ever so slightly off-balance. The cinematography is also an element to take note of when analyzing this film. The lighting, camera movement, and shot selections convey a neo-noir tone. Similar tones can be found in Mulholland Drive and Pulp Fiction. Although there are many horror elements in this movie, it bares a lot of similarities to neo-noir in how it handles the central character and the conflict he’s been thrown into that leaves him in over his head. And of course, it ends badly for Trent.

I am surprised that not more horror fans know of, much less, like this movie. It really seems to have two camps: one that loves this film and the other that hates it. Honestly, it appears to be one of the more polarizing films within the horror library. It’s one that I will certainly rewatch because of the highly intellectual component. There is tremendous depth to the narrative and it strikes me as the type of film that will give the viewer something different to think about every watch. It’s visually stunning and the imagery is macabre. Definitely one that I will recommend to fellow horror fiends like me.

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

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