Deck the halls with blood and mayhem! It’s time for another selection from my (2011) list of 12 Days of Holiday Horror.
More 2011 Angst
If you’re like me, then the only thing you’ll be warming yourself with on Christmas is your own boiling rage. This year, I’m shelving my copies of Love Actually and It’s A Wonderful Life to instead revisit my Top 12 Holiday Horror favorites. After all, violence rates tend to peak during this time of year; it’s best to let someone else do the slaying.
I’ve only been to a ski resort once in my life, and my time there ended on a stretcher. Along for the ride on the best-funded Girl Scouts field trip I’d ever attend, I didn’t really know what I was in for. Everyone else in my troop had previous experience on the slopes. A sturdy dozen of golden-haired children from happy middle-income homes, this assortment of girls from Troop 1100 was well-prepared for our Winter adventure. I, on the other hand, was a foster brat who haphazardly obtained my recreational winter wardrobe as a series of ill-fitting hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. I stood out like a pair of assless pajamas in a crowd of brand new neon snow suits with matching accessories; I think my pants were salmon. As in salmon-colored.
When we arrived at the venue, several girls paired off and went their separate ways. They were familiar with their surroundings and what was expected of them, and as a result I quickly found myself alone in front of what can only be described as a “curious-child killing device.” It was essentially a lift for the bunny slopes; red rubber triangles connected to a long cable would run up the length of the snowy hill transporting skiers to the top. The idea behind this mechanism was that I would be able to grab the rubber triangle, hold it tight and slowly be led up the hill by the cable, as though a very strong person were holding my hand and pulling me to my destination. I don’t know if my gloves were slippery or if I was simply uncoordinated, but instead of gently ascending, I tripped and stumbled for roughly forty feet before finally losing grip and letting go. My body fell backwards with such force that I began rolling down the hill behind me. Every time I tried to stop myself, I instead seemed to push and bounce my body upward, causing me to build even more momentum. I continued rolling down the hill until I hit a large tree-bush (I don’t remember if it was a tree or a bush, as I blacked out immediately afterward). One of my Girl Scouts chaperons had been apparently watching in horror the entire time. 20 minutes into the trip, and one kid was already seriously injured. The outing was ended, and when I went home from the hospital and returned to a troop meeting the following week, I was told by several perfect-looking young girls in brand new flare-legged jeans how much I had ruined everything. I quit Girl Scouts pretty quickly after that.
We entered must-watch territory about 2 movies ago, just fyi-
#3: Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010)
Directors: Daniel Farrands, Andrew Kasch
Starring: Heather Langenkamp (Narrator)
Every year until this year, I’ve embarked on a traditional weekend-long Nightmare on Elm Street marathon, usually never making it beyond Dream Child. Thankfully, I now have a way to enjoy all eight films in a single sitting (okay, maybe two) with Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, a four-hour long documentary on the Nightmare series that covers every film in the franchise, even Freddy Vs. Jason. In a series of half-hour long segments filled with cast and crew interviews, film clips and all-new behind-the-scenes material, Directors Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch compose an informative, delightful love letter to the series that has haunted the dreams of teenagers the world over since 1984.
#4: REC (2007)
Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Starring: Manuela Velasco, Ferrán Terraza, Pablo Rosso
Embedding realism into a zombie flick can be a difficult task. Films that are rich with fast-paced action, well-developed characters and skilled cinematography often struggle to maintain their believability factor. Sometimes, the war-like personalities of central characters become overblown and cartoonish during zombie movie climaxes (Dawn of the Dead); in other instances, the central conflict of a zombie infestation is shelved partially through the narrative to focus on character-centered drama (The Walking Dead). Acknowledging that even the beloved sub-genre’s most successful works were flawed in this way, directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza gave us REC, an imaginative entry in horror cinema that sucks the audience into its universe in the first frame and holds you there until the credits roll.
#5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen
As I enter the Top 5, I’d like to take a moment to point out some common themes in my Halloween films list. Though some of the pieces I’ve chosen revolve around Halloween specifically, most simply have a Halloween-esque or Autumn-like feel to them. I have an affinity for the atmosphere created by big, old houses (Amityville Horror, Bones), repulsive monsters (Pet Sematary, Silent Hill) and terrifying games of chase (The Blair Witch Project, High Tension). The cult favorite drive-in movie hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes all three of these favorite elements of mine and shoves them into a single 90-minute scream fest.
Texas Chainsaw centers around Sally and Franlin Hardisty, a brother and sister traveling with their friends to the rural countryside to visit a family grave. Along the way, they pick up a maniac hitch hiker who cuts his hand open and stabs another passenger. In shock, the group quickly tosses him back onto the country roads and continues driving. While looking for gas, they stumbles upon a nearby homestead littered with broken-down cars and animal bones. Sally and her crew quickly realize that their presence in the creepy, death-littered home is an unwelcome one as an enormous man with a mask made of human skin and a running chainsaw bursts out of the basement and chases them down. What ensues is a heart-startling, twisted tale of survival that climaxes in a final confrontation which lasts a third of the film.
#6: High Tension/Haute Tension/Switchblade Romance (2003)
Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Cécile de France, Maïwenn Le Besco
During the last decade, a stylistic movement called the “New French Wave of Extremity” swept through the world of horror and raised the bar for and the entire genre film industry. New works such as Martyrs, Inside and Irreversible challenged tired cliches about deranged hillbillies and creaky houses with their female-driven plots, hyper-realistic violence and nonlinear storytelling. High Tension (also released as Haute Tension and Switchblade Romance) is a benchmark example from the New French Wave that delivers intimate storytelling and thoughtful cinematography right alongside its exciting, in-your-face slasher action.
The story follows friends Marie and Alex as they venture to Alex’s far-away country home to buckle down and study for midterms. After a short evening spent catching up with parents and preparing for the next day’s studying, Marie and the rest of the household retire to bed. Everything’s friendly and peaceful until Alex’s father is awoken in the middle of the night by an unknown visitor pulling into his driveway; when he opens the door to confront the stranger, a series of fast-paced, bloody events occur and the audience launches into the epic game of cat-and-mouse that is High Tension.
#7: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Director: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
Starring: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams
1999 was an intense year of pop culture for me. I gave up my fandom of the Spice Girls after the release of their ominously-titled Goodbye album and picked up CD singles of “Baby One More Time” and “No Scrubs.” Nickelodeon retired Stick Stickly and I developed an affinity for Say What? Karaoke and Undressed. Titanic came out in theaters and open conversations about Kate Winslet’s size made me question my body image for the first time. My house got the internet (28K dial-up). And then The Blair Witch Project happened.
#8: Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Bill Moseley, Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton
When I sat down recently to watch this film, I really questioned my own taste in cinema. Fundamentally, I understand that Repo! The Genetic Opera is not a good movie. Plot-wise, there’s too much going on at once to digest in two-hour sitting. While cohesive, its pacing is jittery and prevents the audience from adapting to any sort of consistent “flow.” The last half of the film is difficult to sit through; the novelty of its absurdity wears off after a while, and some people are simply unable to put up with a second hour of drama surrounding an organ repossession expert and his daughter with a blood disease told through the medium of rock opera. Admittedly, Repo! is a piece that falls into the category of “movies you can fast forward through and still get the general gist of,” yet I still find myself watching it once a year around Halloween.
Maybe it’s just enough for me that the movie was made. In a world of craptacularly uninspired 80s remakes (Remember when the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street tried to work in victim blaming as a plot twist? Yeah.), Repo! is a breath of fresh air. The film takes place in a futuristic dystopia where a company called GeneCo has cashed in on a worldwide organ epidemic by offering personal financing for surgery; the only catch is that if you can’t make your payments on time, the company has permission to repossess your organs. This relentlessly absurd and disturbing set up consistently delivers on its own premise throughout the film.
Remember when I tried to have a horror movie blog? LOLOLOL WHAT IS INTERNET BLOG HOW DO I MAKE WORD?
#9: Dead Alive/Braindead (1992)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver
Dead Alive is an epic zombie gorecore splatterriot that takes blood, guts, and bits of flesh to a gross new level of intensity. The story centers around Lionel, a mousy suburbian Northeasterner who lives with his rich mother, and Paquita, his sweet love interest. One day, Lionel takes his mother on an outing to the local zoo; there, they check out the new exhibit featuring the “rare and dangerous” Sumatran Rat Monkey. In an attempt to get a closer look, Lionel’s mother is bitten and suddenly becomes Patient Zero of the zombie apocalypse.
The film’s visual effects are the its highest achievement. Early moments of stop-motion animation depicting the rat monkey and zombie baby are hilarious, well-animated and faultlessly campy. Later scenes - such as the custard eating roundtable, house party, and lawnmower finale - implement animatronic props and other physical effects in a way that’s positively nausea-inducing. The final battle between Lionel and his mother is one of my favorite puppet-based gore sequences of all time; this scene is so bloody that after watching it, I had to walk into the bathroom and check my reflection in the mirror to make sure that I wasn’t covered in fleshy chunks of rotting human meat bits.
#11: Silent Hill (2006)
Director: Christophe Gans
Starring: Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean
Rose and Christophers’s adopted daughter, Sharon, is being plagued by recurring nightmares about a far away town called Silent Hill. After a terrifying incident that sends Sharon sleepwalking to the edge of a cliff, Rose and her daughter take off to Silent Hill in hopes of putting an end to the dreams. Unfortunately, Rose swerves and crashes her vehicle during the drive; when she awakens, she finds herself parked on the city limits of Silent Hill with Sharon nowhere in sight. Rose immediately takes off in search of her daughter, but her quest to find her quickly becomes quest to figure out what happened to the town of Silent Hill and the people who lived there.
The image of Rose in her crashed vehicle struck a particularly intense chord with me. For a long time, my biggest fear was getting into a car accident. Being in that moment when the one-ton body of another machine is uncontrollably headed toward yours, when your hands lose control of the steering wheel, when the tires leave the payment and glass begins to fly – I feared that so much that I refused to drive for three years. It hits me now, though, that the true horror begins once the accident is over. It’s when the world stops spinning and you realize that you’ll be out thousands of dollars or you’ve broken a bone or a stranger in the other vehicle is bleeding to death that things really become scary. The same is the case for Rose; the nightmare begins in the aftermath of her crash.
So, as per usual, I’m behind on everything because of feelings. Here’s another repost from last year:
#12: The Amityville Horror (1979)
Director: Stuart Rosenburg
Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder
I’ve been having this nightmare about The Man With The Gun for nearly three years now. He usually finds me in the wooded acreage surrounding my childhood home, though sometimes it’s while I’m hiding in a cupboard or crawling through the space between walls. His objective is always to kill me and everyone within my reach, and often it’s not until The Man With The Gun pops out from behind his first corner that I realize I’m surrounded by people I love. A random picking of friends and family who I’ve lost contact with and men I’ve dated or wanted to date are suddenly targets of The Man With The Gun, and it’s my responsibility to hide and protect them while I try to keep myself safe, too. From the onset of violence, the level of terror is so high that no one has time to ask why this member of our universe is out to end our lives. There are no opportunities to pause and gain clairity, only to grab the arm nearest to me, run like hell, and hope that everyone makes it out alive.
I think I keep having shitty dreams like this because of my tendency to watch so much haunted house cinema. As you probably picked up from my blurb on Bones, I find few things scarier than the claustrophic disquietude of a cursed home. To have the place where I live be violated and tresspassed upon by an unknown visitor, especially one that wants to hurt me, irritates my Western values of private space and makes me feel unsafe. The Amityville Horror (1979) has an incredible awareness of this kind of fear and responds to it with a chilling horror story about crushing The American Dream.
The story begins with a happily ever after, where the recently married George and Kathy Lutz and their shared stepchildren are moving into a gorgeous lakeside Colonial. Through several suprisingly intimate and beautifully shot narrative sequences, we watch the Lutz family decorate the home, play together and work toward blending their family. However, the rural lakeside splendor is interrupted within just a few days of their arrival by a series of unexplained, disturbing occurrences within the home. George develops insomnia and is perpetually cold. A priest visits to bless the house and grows rapidly ill.
By two weeks in, the mysterious incidents have become increasingly violent and obtrusive. Kathy’s youngest son’s hand is smashed by a falling window. Her youngest daughter becomes disobedient and reclusive. George seems the most affected and begins neglecting his business, marriage and personal health. What was supposed to be a fresh start for the family soon seems a sentence of doom. The romance of a new home and new life quickly vanishes under the shadow of everyone’s separate chaos, and the climax of the film relies on whether or not the Lutz family has the ability to come together and fight for their place in the home.
From the first moment George Lutz’s clock turns to 3:15 AM, it is clear to the audience that the only character in this film with control is The House. Director Stuart Rosenburg takes full advantage of The House’s position of power and uses it to create images, like bleeding floorboards and possessed rocking chairs, that negatively manipulate whomever comes within reach. Interestingly, The House never directly harms anyone; though it may haunt the members of the Lutz family until they go insane and harm each other, it’s goal is simply to drive them away. The House is even given its own voice and screams repeatedly, “Get out!” And really, if a piece of architecture magically developing vocal ability and then threatening you isn’t enough to make you consider getting the fuck out right then and there, you might deserve to die anyway.
What’s great about Amityville is the way that it sets the standard for the next 30 years worth of haunted house flicks to follow it. So many images, from mysteriously slamming doors to the paced title screens that read “Day X”, have grown into icons of horror cinema that still are used and prove effective today. A perfectly vintage cast and wardrobe, a chilly pre-winter setting and timelessly good scares make The Amityville Horror one of my favorite Halloween-time movies to watch in the dark.
TL;DR: This is the film that the Paranormal Activity franchise lifted everything from.
Repost from last year. (Sorry, Andrew, I know you hate this movie.):
#13: Bones (2001)
Director: Ernest Dickerson
Starring: Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier
The year is 1979, and Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg) is the leading man on the block. Bones maintains community order, busting drug dealers and giving money to those in need, until one night when a conflict with a drug dealer and a corrupt police officer leaves him dead on his apartment floor. Twenty-two years later, four hip, young investors decide to renovate the vacant home and transform it into the city’s new destination nightclub. Unfortunately, the ghost of Jimmy Bones still still lives there, too, and is willing to fight them for the real estate.
Sometimes we lay on our backs with my head on your stomach, and I press my ear hard against you to listen to what’s inside. I hear your lungs filling and your heart pumping life through your body; I visualize your intestines, kidneys, colon and spleen writhing about your ribcage in perfect, mortality-sustaining synchronization. It’s then when I’m most grounded, when I’m reminded of how temporary all of this is and how I want to give my love to your every organ before they each dry up and disappear forever.
We’re all familiar with the formula: A swath of sexy college co-eds embarks on a holiday road trip to an unmarked rural destination. Along the way, they encounter two silent, stare-heavy hillbillies whom evoke a strong sense of paranoia and unease within the group. Regardless of their fear of locals, the hot young campers continue adventuring, only to soon be plagued by the kidnapping of one of their friends and the apparent death of another. Within moments, it is concluded that “those guys from the gas station” are responsible for the tragic happenings, and the only way to stop them is through unobstructed, civilian, revenge-style justice.
But what if those college kids were wrong from the very beginning? What if the two dusty hicks from town weren’t predatorial and creepy, but just socially awkward? And what if their friend wasn’t kidnapped, but rescued from drowning and then misinterpreted as being abducted? Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil throws a wrench into the gears of the rural ensemble-horror subgenre by exploring those very questions.
The film centers around Dale (a cushiony teddy bear who wears a trucker hat) and his brother Tucker (a hard-working everyman who wants nothing more in life than a vacation house by the lake), and their unfortunate encounters with a group of vacationing college students. While secretly peeping at the college kids’ late-night skinny dipping session, Dale and Tuck witness one of the campers (Allison) falling into the water and hitting her head on a rock. They rescue her within seeing-distance of the rest of the group, but Allison’s shocked friends are freaked out by the sight of two strangers hauling her body into a fishing boat in the middle of the night; naturally, they respond to the situation by running away screaming into the woods. Back at their cabin, Tucker and Dale nurse the rescued girl back to consciousness and recap the events of the previous evening; meanwhile, Allison’s friends decide against contacting local authorities and set off the next morning on a vigilante rescue mission for her, weapons in-hand.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is a pleasantly surprising film from start to finish. It begins in such a typical fashion, easing the audience into a recognizable horror universe, but then flips itself completely upside-down to offer some of the best laughs and scares of 2011 cinema. Much like its hor-com predecessors (see: Severance and Shaun of the Dead), shock cinematography and graphic splatter-gore are never sacrificed for the sake of appealing beyond the horror genre. My favorite sequence occurs when Dale is attacked by a man with a spear (who misses, only to fall onto his own spear) and Tucker is charged upon by a man with a dagger (who misses and falls into a running wood chipper). The shot never cuts away, but instead frames the woodchipper, the half of a body sticking out of it and Dale (and Dale’s priceless reactions) together. The result is a cacophony of shock, blood, intestines, humor and confusion that is disgusting and hilarious at the same time.
The marriage of the driving plot device of Tucker and Dale combined with the shifted perspective of the film (when the assumed antagonists become the protagonists) leads to some pretty awesome commentary on how stereotypes inform our interactions with others. As I approached the story knowing nothing about it, I was tricked into believing that those two dirty, ugly dudes at the gas station were out to kill the sexy college co-eds whom I had grown to know over the first, oh, 8 minutes of the movie. When I was proven wrong, I felt a lot like Allison; I realized that Dale was just a “big ol’ marshmallah” and Tucker was a slightly-aged version of my high school boyfriend. I also realized that my deep viewing of the horror genre has set me up with thick layers of prejudices and expectations for characters and stories; Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil gave my viewing perspective a much-needed stirring, and may have alerted me to some problematic biases that I hold against people in the real world, too.