Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 26: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

"Is traumatic the same as scary?" asked my boyfriend when I mentioned Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Out of the hundreds, maybe thousands of horror movies I've seen, Henry is the most haunting, the most difficult to shake.

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

Loosely based on stories of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, Henry offers a chilling look into the bleak, dark everyday lives of murderers. There aren't any fancy special effects, no exciting soundtracks. Instead, we're left with only stark, static shots from mounted cameras. This makes the film feel real, as though we're watching the security footage from actual crimes. Whenever I watch the film, I always crane my neck and attempt to look around the corner to get a better glance of what's happening. As an audience, we're denied that -- we can only see the restrained brutality set before us, simultaneously forcing us to confront the barbaric murders and leaving us wanting to look away, to turn the corner and find some reason behind it. The 16mm film stock also has a rich grain, showcasing the filth, the grime of the men's crimes and their lives.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film is how much the actors embody their roles. Their lack of joy, lack of motivation makes the incredibly brutal crimes inexplicable, purely senseless. Director John McNaughton manages to capture the heinousness of the men's crimes without delving into the true extent of their crimes -- Lucas claimed to have killed between 300 and 600 in his lifetime, with Toole claiming a part in over 100 of those crimes. Toole was also the prime suspect in the murder of 6 year old Adam Walsh, the murder that inspired the launch of America's Most Wanted. These aren't slick, smart men who kill -- they're unlikeable and completely unsympathetic. In this regard, actors Michael Rooker (Henry) and Tom Towles (Otis) are perfect in their roles; if this film were easy to watch, they wouldn't have done their jobs as actors.

Truly, this is a brutal, difficult film -- one that leaves me feeling dirty after watching it. But I think the cold, dark realism is a critical contrast to create in the sea of fun and exciting horror movies. This still may be a (mostly) fictional story, but it doesn't have to be cliché or enjoyable to be effective. It's a movie that I'll never be able to shake, one that I always hate watching but can't help to watch again -- it just feels too important to not return to it every year or two.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 25: Dead Snow

Zombies, zombies, zombies. They seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and with some of the best zombie action happening on TV instead of the big screen, I often find it difficult to sit through yet another sluggish zombie picture. Rest assured that 2009's Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola) is the answer to all bad things in the modern zombie canon. The premise combines all great cliches in horror: college students, a cabin in the woods, and of course, zombies. Did I mention that they're Nazi zombies?

Nazi zombies in Dead Snow

Instead of drowning in the I-can-kill-a-stranger-but-I-can't-kill-my-wife tropes of traditional zombie pictures, Wirkola has elevated his baddies to the ultimate in evil. Therefore, there's absolutely no moral dilemma in slaughtering the zombies, so the medical students (and the audience) can unabashedly delight in the violence.

The film also rewards the viewer with humorously grotesque scenes. The Norwegian cabin does not contain a bathroom, so the students must trudge through the snow to the outhouse. It's only fitting that the young Chris is pulled down into the waste by a zombie. Later, one of the students actually uses zombie entrails as a rope while dangling off of a cliff. These moments of disgusting humor lighten the tension of the violence.

But what really stands out is the solid filmmaking behind Dead Snow. Each shot is beautifully composed, utilizing the stark Norwegian winter as a stunning contrast to the black-red blood of both the human and the undead. The 35mm captures the colors with stunning contrast -- a richness so difficult to capture in digital formats. It's clear that Wirkola didn't just want to make another campy zombie movie; he adds a cinematic backbone to the classic story, a combination that makes Dead Snow stand out in a sea of repetition.

Halloween Horror, Day 24: The House of the Devil

Throwbacks: they can celebrate the best of the past or highlight the worst mistakes. The House of the Devil may have been released in 2009, but it stands as a loving homage to the horror of the 80's, from the babysitter plot line to the delicious wardrobe. Director Ti West elevates the

The House of the Devil

But why even revisit the babysitter genre? Haven't these caretakers experienced enough torture? Obviously not! Director Ti West avoids the traditional woman-victimized-by-crazed-but-stronger-man approach; instead, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) finds herself directly taking on a satanic cult -- one that's murdered both men and women.


But Samantha doesn't take anything lying down. Even when strapped down with blood being poured in her face, she manages to free herself. At this point, most babysitters would run in the wrong direction, cry, and get captured -- but not Samantha. She doesn't even leave the house until she's violently attacked or killed all 4 members of the cult. When she discovers that her role in the satanic ritual hasn't ended, she chooses to shoot herself rather than face a Rosemary's Baby scenario.

What fun would it be if ending things were that easy? Of course, the film closes on Samantha in the hospital. Her head is heavily bandaged as a result of the suicide attempt, and the nurse caring for her alludes to Samantha's pregnancy. You can't just stop a satan baby, okay? Then, the credits roll over the image of Samantha in her hospital bed, allowing us to really digest the moment: she fought harder than most women in film, she did everything right, and she tried to end it -- but nothing will stop this pregnancy. It's downright chilling, and I applaud Ti West for making his throwback much more appealing to modern women.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 23: Night of the Living Dead

It just wouldn't be October without watching some George A. Romero. It goes without saying that Night of the Living Dead (1968) not only defined the zombie film but revolutionized the horror genre. Let's skip the conversational filler and get straight to the top 4 reasons why this film is so special.

Night of the Living Dead

1. Children are damn creepy. Years before The Exorcist and The Omen showed us that youngsters aren't the innocent creatures we've come to believe, Night of the Living Dead proved that maternal instinct can be deadly. Not only is it daring to have a child be violent on camera, but it's a huge risk to have a child die in the film. Romero doesn't shy away from making these tough choices, and his movie is all the stronger for it.

2. Racism abounds. Few films dare to address the rampant racism in American society, let alone directly criticize it. Here, the main hero -- and seemingly the only truly rational character -- just so happens to be African American. Considering the highly charged racial tension of America in the 60's, Duane Jones's turn as Ben was both controversial and revolutionary. The film's ending, too, pushes the criticism further. As a healthy Ben is gunned down by police officers, we can't help but wonder if the deputies would've been so quick to draw their weapons on a white man.

3. No confidence in organized government. Between a seemingly unending war, numerous public assassinations, and civil unrest, it's safe to say that the US government wasn't trusted by its people. If there were a massive domestic outbreak, such as a zombie outbreak, would America be equipped to contain it? Today, the question is just as relevant -- given the CDC suspension during the US government shutdown, the covert wars abroad, the inability for the government to agree on basic human access to health care, would the government be capable of protecting its people and communicating an emergency plan?

4. Balance of horror. With the oversaturation of the zombie genre, it's easy to say now that we've become somewhat immune to the terrors of seeing undead humans eat the living. What's interesting about Night of the Living Dead is that the fear doesn't just come from the creepy creatures. Even in the face of immediate death, the human still struggle for power within their small group. The tension within the group -- particularly between cool-headed Ben and anxious Harry (Karl Hardman) -- are just as dangerous to their immediate harm as the zombies are.

Consider this a salute to Romero, a giant thanks for showing the world that horror movies can be smarter, better, and yes, even political. Here's to many more where that came from.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 22: April Fool's Day

One of my favorite things about 80's horror films is their sense of humor. After the creature-features of the 50's, the thrillers of the 60's, and the axe murders of the 70's, the films of the 80's developed a newfound self-awareness that allowed them to be humorous while maintaining their scares. One of the best examples of this is April Fool's Day (1986).

April Fool's Day

From the very beginning, April Fool's Day takes its namesake to heart, playing pranks that neither that the characters nor the audience know are real. The setup of the film is very similar to other 80's horror flicks: a group of kids (in this case, entitled college students) are stranded in a remote location (an island) with a killer. In this case, the students are all total strangers who've come to celebrate mutual friend Muffy St. John's birthday. What begins as a series of playful April Fool's Day jokes starts to turn deadly as bodies begin to pile up.

But what makes April Fool's Day different is the element of the unknown. As every piece of violence occurs, we're left wondering whether what we saw actually happened or if it was really a prank. Is Muffy a mischievous hostess celebrating the holiday to the fullest, or is there a darker truth lurking on the island? Is this a traditional slasher, or is there something more at play?


The most controversial aspect of the film is that the deaths aren't real after all; Muffy is doing a trial run for a murder mystery weekend she'd like to host on the island. This eventuality is alluded to near the very beginning, as Nan notes that she knows Muffy from acting class. In a way, this could be seen as a cop out, the most obvious conclusion based upon the title. However, I feel that this is a conscious choice, a fun alternative to the senseless murders so popular during this time. After all, it doesn't make the deaths any less suspenseful or chilling if we find out much later that they aren't ultimately dead. While it's not the movie for everyone, I appreciate the point of difference it creates in a sea of very similar films.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 21: Candyman

Let's have a moment of honesty here: horror movies are really shitty about diversity. They don't often represent non-white folks, and when they do, chances are the token minorities are dying pretty quickly. The optimist in me would like to think that the lack of representation is related to the fact that the overwhelming majority of serial killers tends to be middle-aged white guys, but really, it's not okay. With this in mind, I decided to seek out something a little more diversity.


Candyman (1992, directed by Bernard Rose) goes far beyond token inclusion of African American characters, elevating race to a critical aspect of the plot. Virginia Madsen stars as Helen, an affluent graduate student researching urban legends in Chicago. Her focus is the Candyman (played by Tony Todd) narrative: an free African American during the Civil War era who is murdered for having a consensual relationship with a white woman. What's interesting here is how the Candyman story bridges the gap between Chicago neighborhoods. Candyman's immortal rage is projected onto anyone who dares speak his name 5 times in front of a mirror -- regardless of age, race, gender, or economic background. His anger is blind, and he's willing to kill anyone who dare speaks his name.

We also see a lot of characters moving between racial-coded spaces. Helen asserts herself into a poor, crime-ridden ghetto, mostly occupied by African American tenants -- but not without consequence. The Candyman narrative acts as a reason to keep boundaries up, and the Cabrini Green project tenants are obviously nervous about Helen's motivations. Here, the film does get into some questionable racial territory. Having angry African American tenants of the ghetto physically attack a white woman harkens back to some of the most racist American fears -- the very same motivations that resulted in the murder of Candyman. This illustrates how we haven't created a post-racial society, despite any laws to the contrary.

On a positive note, though, African American characters also move beyond the ghetto. In most films, you'd be hard pressed to see minorities occupy as many positions of power as they do in Candyman; here, we see characters like Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), Helen's best friend and fellow researcher. The main police officer, the passionate mother, and the innocent child are all African American. While they don't all survive to the end of the film (let's remember that this is a horror film), their odds are a lot better than most films of the genre. It's not perfect, but it's a giant improvement.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Clive Barker. As with all films based on Barker stories, Candyman frequently melds together agony and ecstasy. As Candyman tries to lure Helen to her death, he beckons her with descriptions of how delicious death can be: "The pain, I can assure you, will be exquisite [...] Come with me and be immortal." Indeed, the only time Helen seems at bliss is near the end of the film, as she exacts her revenge upon her husband. In this way, the film cannot be simply written off as a fear of the "Black Bogeyman" -- it's a fear that we're all capable of being the bogeyman, especially when victimized.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Halloween Horror, Days 18-20: Polanski's Apartment Trilogy

While Roman Polanski isn't often thought of as a master of horror (except maybe in real life), his 1968 classic Rosemary's Baby is widely considered one of the best shockers of all time. However, the film is rarely taken in its greatest context, as part Polanski's "apartment trilogy" -- a series of three unrelated films thematically connected by showcasing the terrors of modern urban living.


The first film in the series is Polanski's English-language debut, Repulsion (1965). Catherine Deneuve stars as Carole, a disturbed young woman who becomes increasingly paranoid and hysterical the longer she's left alone in her London apartment. She finds her relationship with men moving from strained to dangerous and violent, quickly including rape and murder. The terror physically manifests itself as the apartment's filth and decay -- and mounting dead bodies. Tight shots and limited sets make the audience share the anxiety and paranoia of Carole. If anything, the film's only flaw is that it's too effective, too anxiety-producing to merit repeat viewings.

Rosemary's Baby

Although second in the series, Rosemary's Baby is by far the most well known. It's no surprise with the famous names attached: William Castle produced it, and the all-star cast includes Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. Similar to Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby tells the story of a young woman whose relationship with her neighbors -- and with reality -- becomes tenser and tenser. Is she just paranoid as her maternal instinct is kicking in, or is there something more devious happening in her New York City apartment building? I assume that many find Rosemary's Baby to be a more satisfying viewing experience than its predecessor because of its tangibility; whereas Repulsion left you guessing about the goings-on around Carole, Rosemary's Baby provides definitive answers to the viewers' questions. This doesn't make the film any less terrifying; if anything, sometimes it's knowing what people are capable of that's most horrifying of all.

The Tenant

The apartment trilogy ends with a more masculine turn in The Tenant (1976). Polanski himself stars as Trelkovsky, a painfully shy diplomat who moves into an unusual Paris apartment. His natural curiosity leads him to investigate what happened to his room's previous tenant -- an investigation that reveals a suspicious suicide under questionable circumstances. Did the previous tenant really kill herself, did someone else throw her out of the window, or was she somehow compelled to throw herself out the window as her only means of egress? In a way, this female tenant could be seen as an extension of Carole from Repulsion -- a young woman devastated and tortured by urbanity. As Trelkovsky digs deeper into the mysteries surrounding his apartment, he becomes increasingly convinced that his neighbors are plotting his demise. Like the first film in the series, The Tenant returns to ambiguity, never quite revealing whether or not the neighbors are guilty like they are in Rosemary's Baby. However, this vagueness works to the film's advantage, as Trelkovsky takes matters into his own hands.

When viewed separately, each of the films in Polanski's apartment trilogy amplify the isolation and paranoia of modernity. Combined together, they show how this stress is global, stretching beyond countries, beyond gender, beyond class. No one can be trusted -- least of all yourself.