“The Dark Crystal” Throwback Thursday Review

With the highly anticipated The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance releasing on August 30th, I want to revisit the cult classic that is still equal parts beautiful and terrifying to this day. A couple of years ago, Fathom Events brought The Dark Crystal to the big screen, so I was able to watch this outstanding motion picture on the big screen for the first time ever. Despite the very macabre nature of many parts of the movie, my parents showed this movie to my sister and I at a young age. From the very first time we watched it, my sister and I became fans. As kids–back when kids played outside, in the woods, and in abandoned buildings using their imaginations to role play–we created characters that were ostensibly taken from the world of the movie, and spent hours imagining we were in Thra. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the spectacular production design and puppetry. I can only speculate the degree to which kid-me appreciated the artistic elements of the now iconic motion picture, but I imagine that it completely captured my imagination, otherwise I would not have rewatched it as many times as I did. As an adult, I am shocked that my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age because there are moments that terrify first-time adult audiences today. Sometime last year, I introduced this movie to my penpal, and he was blown away by how dark this fantasy movie was. Of course, this movie came out at a time that fantasies were dark (case and point, The Neverending Story). On the surface, this may be a common premise of good triumphing over evil despite adversity, but there is so much more that makes this the timeless classic that it is. Jim Henson was an incredible genius who truly knew how to combine form with function to create a fantastical masterpiece.

What stands out more than the plot itself (which is pretty straight forward), is the fantastical practical effects that give the film incredible depth–levels of dimension that CGI-heavy movies with they had but won’t ever achieve. Why? Simply because you cannot replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. The atmosphere that the setting and characters combine to make is a level of movie magic that only the genius of Jim Henson could have created. Frank Oz stated that children should not be sheltered from darkness because it is just as much a part of their lives as joy and laughter. There are some truly terrifying and sad moments in this movie. And it looks as if this sentiment is going to be channeled into the new series. The story does not shy away from topics such as torture, death, gender roles, independence, and courage. Whereas the plot itself is simple, the characters are highly complex. Moreover, each of the Skeksis represents one of the seven deadly sins, and each Mystic is the good counterpart. The gelflings represents the “human” or emotional component in the narrative, so they serve as the conduit through which we experience the plot. Aughra is our logical character whom provides the diegetic exposition to understand the gravity of the encroaching Great Conjunction. There is a beautiful poetry in how the characters all complement one another and their respective surroundings.

Although all Jim Henson movies feature muppets (Henson’s patented puppets) and other movies have puppetry, The Dark Crystal stands alone as the only film of his that is entirely puppets! Yes, you could argue that the few longshots are human actors, but that is splitting hairs. For all intents and purposes, only puppets appear in this movie. And these puppets were the most advanced to ever hit the screen, and still the most advanced puppets to have ever been witnessed on the silver screen. Fewer than 20yrs after The Dark Crystal virtually all puppetry would be replaced with CGI to save money and time. Sacrificing experiential art for technical marvel. These advanced puppets inspired the ones that have made appearances in Disney and Universal parks over the years. Some of the puppets had to be operated by multiple people, yet when you watch them on screen, you forget that they are a puppet because they truly exist within the fantastical world. I love how the design of each and every kind of puppet is an extension of the world in which they live. So much dimension in each and every creature. There are lines, shadows, textures, and more that CGI could never replicate. These are three-dimensional creatures that exist within a four-dimensional world that exemplify the absolutely peak of a combination of technical design, costuming, and articulated performance that the camera natively captures without need for post-production to create a significant effect after the fact. Very seldom do we get to witness such an attention to detail in the design of a character (we will get to the set soon). These puppet characters do not feel or look artificial, the manner in which the light reflects off them and they interact with the world around them gives them an outstanding ability to make us forget that there is someone pulling the strings. We emotionally connect with these characters in such a way that can so often only be done with human or animal actors.

The production design of the set is an outstanding, dazzling artistic achievement by standards then and now. You’ll be hard pressed to find another set that is created with such a high degree of tangible detail. No amount or quality of CGI can even hold a candle to the wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Thra. I absolutely love how the homes of each of the groups of characters (Skeksis, Mystics, Podlings, Gelflings, and everyone’s favorite Aughra), are designed to be an extension of the inhabitants themselves. Because there is nothing generic about any of the settings, the degree to which the lands feel real is astonishing. One of the reasons for that is because it IS real! Blue/green screen technology was still in its infancy so there was thankfully no real desire to integrate it into the set for most of the movie. However, the final scene of the movie does feature some green screen work that does not hold up today. Without a screen able to fill in the gaps for most of the movie, the artisans and craftsmen had the daunting task of bringing this world of fantasy in the age of wonder to life. And their tireless efforts pay off in spades. Diversity runs strong all through the story both visually and figuratively. No two landscapes or settings look alike, just as no two characters (even the podlings) look identical. Every line, corner, and texture radiates art. More than simply a backdrop for the scenes of the plot, the settings are essentially characters themselves. The way the characters interact with their surroundings holds the audience in an incredible suspension of disbelief as to the believability of the world that is on screen.

Although it was not a blockbuster in the US, as it was up against E.T. that same year, it was the highest grossing box office hit in France and Japan. Not being an initial box office success has not stopped the film from aging well and remaining an impressive work of art even by today’s audiences. Perhaps it is best known for being a cult classic, but that cult following has remained strong through the years. So much so that we have the Netflix prequel series with an all-star cast debuting in August. It’s refreshing to see that a prequel (or sequel) strives to embody the soul of the original in order to inspire a new generation of fans and future visual storytellers. We fell in love with the original because of the puppetry and production design, the unique characters, and fantastical elements that make it an exemplary motion picture.

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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“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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Halloween (2018) Full Horror Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(spoilers ahead)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.