[Horror History] Netflix & Kill (The 2010’s)

@craiggors

This is the 11th and Final Part of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as well

If the 2000’s was the decade that planted the seeds to revitalize and adapt the horror genre, then the 2010’s certainly saw the fruits of that labor. Whether it was New French Extremity, the deliberate excess of torture porn, or the ever-evolving found footage sub-genre, horror was experiencing a renewed interest and priming itself to head in bold new directions. The 2010’s were packed with variety when it came to spooks and scares. The experimentation, range, and quality exhibited had not been seen on such a massive scale since horror’s Golden Age during the 1970’s. Whether the films of the 2010’s will become as seminal and influential as those of the 70’s remains to be seen, but it can’t be denied that the sheer number of offerings on hand made it a peak time to be a horror fan.

The 2010’s saw an abundance of young, visionary directors crafting interesting, thought-provoking work, and a hungry, willing audience growing by the day eager to consume their work. There was horror for everyone in the 2010’s, no matter what your favorite sub-genre was, and the amount of creative freedom for filmmakers was unparalleled. Thanks to affordable digital cameras, social media, and widespread high-speed internet, it was easier than ever for filmmakers to get their ideas onto screens big and small without having to rely on the traditional studio pipeline that would have hampered more offbeat efforts in the past. The rise of streaming platforms allowed for limitless options, and by the end of the decade, everyone wanted to get in on original horror content. It seemed the first decade of the 21st century whetted the world’s appetite for horror. Now it was time to feast.

Pictured: someone who appreciates going HAM

After the mostly financially successful remakes of classic properties in the 2000’s–chief among them The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2009), it was no surprise that studios stuck with the very easy model of outfitting the old guard for a new era. Old fans were drawn in out of curiosity, while new, younger fans came thanks to name recognition and marketing hype. As the decade began, the remake train was going full steam ahead, with many of the most formative and beloved horror films of the 70’s and 80’s getting made over with A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), Piranha (2010), I Spit On Your Grave (2010), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), The Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013), with Poltergeist (2015), Suspiria (2018), and Child’s Play (2019), and Rabid (2019) sprinkled in later. If it wasn’t remakes, it there were still new entries. The Thing (2011) was a prequel that detailed what happened to the Norwegian base immediately prior to the events of Carpenter’s 1982 film, while Texas Chainsaw was given yet another reset/odd continuity scuttle with Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013). Aside from it’s remake at the end of the decade, the Child’s Play franchise first saw two new installments with Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), all priming people for the television series Chucky airing now on Syfy. Perhaps the most high profile sequel was Halloween (2018), David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original and the start of a new trilogy that saw the return of Laurie Strode in a celebration of the film’s fortieth anniversary. On the other end of the spectrum, Hellraiser: Judgement (2018), the tenth entry in the Hellraiser series, gained little fanfare outside Cenobite loyalists.

Though the bankability of established properties was undeniable, critical reviews and audience reception were not always as kind. As such, the word “remake” came to carry a stain by the mid-2010’s, and later decade efforts to continue famous franchises started using words like “reboot” and “reimagining” and “alternate version” to dissociate from those clearly cash-grab prior efforts. The Halloween and Texas Chainsaw properties were particularly fond of this strategy. These efforts have their admirers, and there is certainly solid work in the bunch, but by and large even the best remakes of the 2010’s still bore the caveat “but we’ve seen it before.”

Yet outside of the redo-cycle, those aforementioned new creatives were experimenting with wild abandon, often to great success. James Wan, who had made a mark for himself with his inventive and low budget Saw (2004), was ready to make his comeback in partnership with Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse, which had struck gold thanks to Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009). The story of that success became the Blumhouse model: make relatively low budget films in which the writers and directors have complete creative control, get good actors, and distribute widely. The strategy is heavy on return on investment, meaning that while Blumhouse produced some of the best horror of the 2010’s, it also produced some of it’s most abysmal stinkers. But it was Blumhouse who invested in Wan’s return effort, a script written by his old friend and writing partner Leigh Whannell: Insidious (2010). The resulting film breathed new life into the haunted house sub-genre, drawing heavily on atmosphere, tension, direction, and expertly timed jump scares. While not as earth-shattering as Paranormal Activity, the film was still a hit commercially and critically, paving the way for Wan to take on an ambitious new project, The Conjuring (2013).

The sheet was uncredited, but man what a performance

Based on the real-life reports of paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with serious chemistry by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring channeled new life into the possession/exorcism sub-genre, a massive feat considering the film is not particularly fresh when it comes to its scares or tactics, but Wan’s direction, the strong script, and the film’s deep understanding of horror as a genre crafted a perfectly tense film that appealed to a wide audience and became one of the most successful horror films of all time. That same year, wan released Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), another box office success that led to Bumhouse’s growing stable of powerhouse franchises alongside Paranormal Activity, Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). Wan went on to helm The Conjuring 2 (2016) and consult on the expansion of the so-called Conjuring Universe, a series of interconnected spin-offs including Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).

Blumhouse was not confined to their super-franchises, however. They also produced lower budget efforts that proved to be some of the most effective horror of the 2010’s, including Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), meta-sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), and Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). Flanagan quickly proved himself to be one of the most inventive directors of the new horror class, with a range that is hard to find in any filmmaker, let alone a horror filmmaker. His debut feature Absentia (2011), his Blumhouse productions, and his Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019) are all vastly different types of films that nonetheless brought fresh twists and dark angles to the tried templates of the ghost story, the home invasion, and the possession tale. Similarly, Creep was credited with breathing new life into the found footage parade with its unpredictability and intimate nature. The unease generated by the Creep films was an element not always found in other 2010’s found footage features, though a handful did stand out in the crowd, including The Last Exorcism (2010), V/H/S (2012), As Above, So Below (2014), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Houses October Built (2014), Hell House LLC (2015), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), another Blumhouse effort that hit just the right notes of suspense and terror.

Blumhouse’s model of low budget, low risk, creative control filmmaking quickly caught on with studios large and small. As the decade wore on, a growing number of visionary talents emerged, backed by studios willing to let them steer their own ships. A discussion arose surrounding the lowly financed, highly creative outputs of these filmmakers, one of so-called “elevated horror.” For perhaps the first time, horror was regarded in the mainstream as a genre that could produce “high art” alongside the “low art” of the slasher and the gore fest. Studio A24 became the focal point for this discussion of respectability in the middle of their decade thanks to Robert Eggers’ Puritan panic, The Witch (2015), though their under-the-radar arthouse films Enemy (2013) and Under the Skin (2013) had quietly started the discussion a few years prior. “Elevated horror” was meant to distinguish films like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014) from more traditional horror, but its usage as a critical term immediately came under fire from longtime horror fans who found the language elitist and implying that non-arthouse horror had no intellectual value. They argued that smart, complex, creative horror has always existed and was only recently overshadowed by over-produced studio fare. The true growth of creative-led indie horror in the 2010’s is thanks in large part to technology. Hi-def video cameras became more affordable, impressive special effects could be completed on a laptop, and self-produced horror could thrive at festivals and stream online thanks to Netflix, Shudder, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any of the other endless streaming platforms desperate for subscribers. Even Blumhouse was technically late to the game. Smart, original, and terrifying low-budget movies like The Battery (2012), Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), They Look Like People (2015), The Invitation (2015), and Southbound (2015) had already made their mark on the indie circuit well before studios realized there was a massive audience for creative-controlled storytelling.

Dost thou wish to have butter on thy popcorn?

Stephen King, whose works had been adapted in every decade since 1976’s Carrie, saw a number of his stories and novels get high profile screen translations in the 2010’s. CBS’s Under the Dome (2013-2015) kicked things off, followed by Hulu’s 11/22/63 miniseries (2016), both of which were more well received than the film adaptations in the early half of the decade. Carrie (2013), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), and Cell (2016) were all considered lazy affairs. This was not unusual for King works that made it to screen, however. For every The Shawshank Redemption (1994) there was always a Dreamcatcher (2003). Then, in 2017, two major King properties with large fanbases made their theatrical debuts after toiling in production hell: The Dark Tower (2017) and IT (2017). Pennywise had previously graced small screens in the 1990 miniseries and had been workshopped for a studio film since 2009, while The Dark Tower was meant to kick off an entire franchise that combined television and film in an epic crossover, but poor reception of the film squashed that idea, at least temporarily. IT surpassed expectations critically and commercially, becoming the most successful horror film of all time. It didn’t take long for others to hop on the newly invigorated King train. Netflix dropped Gerald’s Game (2017) and 1922 (2017) within weeks of IT’s release while Hulu launched Castle Rock (2018-2019) as a means to play with old King stories while creating new ones in a familiar setting. Though Spike’s The Mist (2017) didn’t draw in the viewers or accolades that the 2007 film did, executives weren’t daunted. Audience adapted Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019) to decent reception, and Mike Flanagan took on his second King project with his chilling adaptation of Doctor Sleep (2019) and HBO enjoyed equal success with their miniseries of The Outsider (2020).

King-based TV wasn’t the only horror to soar on the small screen in the 2010’s, and it’s hard not to discuss the genre during the decade without acknowledging the renaissance horror television went through. The explosion of streaming services in the 2010’s changed the rules of both cinema and television. The general approach to horror TV pre-2010 was to take the fantasy and/or supernatural route. You could be frightening here and there, but it was best avoid real terror. Shows like Buffy (1997-2003) and Supernatural (2015-2020) filled that niche well, with Dexter (2006-2013; 2021) scratching the itch for serial killer enthusiasts. And while both True Blood (2008-2014) and The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) capitalized on the post-Twilight vampire craze, it was really AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long running zombie comic series The Walking Dead (2010-present) that entered horror TV into the prestige category. The juggernaut series became AMC’s flagship, sparking dozens of imitators capitalizing on undead mania. With the stigma of low-quality television broken, other efforts came pouring in from networks, premium cable outfits, and streaming services alike. FX’s American Horror Story (2011-present) began as a well-crafted, genuinely scary exploration of themes, characters, and horror iconography not previously seen on the small screen, and it’s initial success opened the floodgates for hardcore horror on TV like Bryan Fuller’s multilayered arthouse Hannibal (2013-2015), moody Psycho (1960) prequel Bates Motel (2013-2017), the delectable Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), and anthology series like Into the Dark (2018-present), Channel Zero (2016-2018), Slasher (2016-present), Scream (2015-2019), and the Creepshow revival (2019-present).

The undisputed champion of 2010’s horror television, however, would turn out to be Netflix. They struck gold with their 80’s-set sci-fi/horror hybrid Stranger Things (2016-present), a nostalgic blast from the past that used incidental music in the style of and from the period to envelop audiences into the time entirely. The blend of coming-of-age drama with horror action proved a massively successful formula, breaking streaming records and setting the cultural tone for the latter half of the decade. Netflix continued to prosper thanks to their partnership with the decade’s rising star Mike Flanagan and his The Haunting of Hill House (2018), lauded as one of the most inventive and scary television shows ever. A masterclass in acting, storytelling, and atmosphere, the series weaved together aspects of the Shirley Jackson novel with a tale of grief and trauma. While other Netflix horror efforts like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020) didn’t quite reach these heights, they nonetheless kept horror fans continually checking in with the streaming service to see what horror offerings they would produce next.

Eight bedrooms, six baths, one Bent-Neck Lady

With Blumhouse and A24 paving the way for horror’s cinematic renaissance, and Netflix doing the same for television, options for genre creatives in the late 2010’s were vast. Thanks to their influx of subscribers, Netflix was now able to begin picking up distribution rights for films at festivals to avoid competing with production studios and thus provide an alternative route to market, and thus return on investment, for filmmakers uninterested or blocked by the traditional and often difficult cinematic release or derived straight-to-disc path. This helped lesser known indies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), American Mary (2012), and Starry Eyes (2014) not get lose in the shuffle and find audiences that otherwise would have missed them. This indiscriminate model sometimes resulted in successes for Netflix like The Ritual (2017) and The Perfection (2018), but also opened the doors for a number of weaker, cheap efforts that felt rushed and incomplete.

Many of these lesser known indie films were able to rise to prominence outside of both the major Hollywood studio system and the ever expanding streaming market. Frozen (2010) had skiers questioning if they’d ever take to the mountains again. The Innkeepers (2011) reminded us that it’s best to leave some ghosts alone, while Mama (2013) demonstrated that family can be deadly. Cyber horror exploited the very technology that integrated itself so completely into daily life in the 2010’s: Followers (2017) used found footage to examine social media, while Megan is Missing (2011) and Share.Like.Follow (2017) took online stalking to frightening new levels and The Den (2013), Cam (2017), and Girl House (2014) revealed just how dangerous spy cams and voyeur culture were getting. Cyberbullying was the subject of a number of films, most notably Don’t Hang Up (2016) and Unfriended (2014). It was an eclectic decade, where everything from salacious slashers like You’re Next (2011) and meta-horror comedies like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) enjoyed as much success as extreme exploitation flicks like The Green Inferno (2015) and home invasion inversions like Don’t Breathe (2016). It was also the decade book-ended by award-recognized horror. Black Swan (2010) and Get Out (2017) drew critical acclaim from the highest halls of film criticism, earning Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, but it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out in particular that sparked important conversations about contemporary and historical traumas surrounding racism in and outside horror. The allegorical film was quickly recognized as a watershed moment for horror, and though Peele’s Us (2019) didn’t garner quite as much praise, Peele was nonetheless solidified as one of the elite class of working horror filmmakers whose projects would be followed as closely as Flanagan, Wan, Eggers, and Ari Aster, whose back-to-back gut punches Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) made it impossible for anyone to deny that horror had the potential to be as respectable and philosophical as any other genre.

Crying over all the Oscar snubs, obviously

With genre-focused services like Shudder providing new and original films and programming alongside classic horror too, and major studios, indie outlets, and streaming services all wanting a pie of the spooky pie, the options for horror fans going into the 2020’s are leaps and bounds ahead of where the genre was even at the beginning of the 2010’s. The rise of independent production companies working closely with streaming has changed the game for horror. Creatives have more avenues than ever to produce the work they want unencumbered by hindering oversight. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put theater-going into a dangerous limbo space, horror as a genre has already proven itself adaptable and capable of not just surviving but thriving in the current state of content consumption, much as it always had been since the days of bats on strings and camera tricks in the days of Edison and Méliès.

It’s unclear what the 2020’s will bring for horror, but it’s certain to be interesting, engaging work reflective of the times. As we await what the next decade will bring, genre fans can rest easy knowing that, like the monsters and slashers and killers that populate the films we love, horror will always be back bigger, stronger, and smarter than ever. Here’s to the next decade, and beyond, of all things horror.

Keep up the creep, Chatterers.

This concludes the Horror History series of posts tackling the history of horror films decade by decade. Share your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading!

WORKS CONSULTED:
Armitage, Matt. “Horror Movies in the 2010s.” Horror Obsessive, 18 July, 2020. https://horrorobsessive.com/2020/07/18/horror-in-the-2010s-part1-the-house-that-wan-built/amp/

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

31 by 31 Challenge #30: HALLOWEEN (2018)

@craiggors

When it was announced that the new Halloween film would wash away every other film in the franchise and act as a direct follow-up to the original, fans were equal parts mystified and titillated. The fervor increased when it was solidified that Laurie Strode herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, would return to battle it out against her arch-tormentor Michael Myers for the first time in twenty years (I’m not counting Halloween: Resurrection or the Rob Zombie travesties). But could David Gordon Green’s film live up to the massive hype? Patient horror hounds got their answer last year, and what a bloody answer it was…

Halloween retcons all of the franchise’s canon outside of the 1978 original. Gone is the brother-sister connection established in Halloween II (1981) that was so large a part of the mythos, as well as both of Laurie’s previous children from Halloween 4 (1988) and Halloween H20 (1998), and all the crazy supernatural nonsense that went with those campy, lovable sequels. But Laurie remains. In this sequel, it’s been four decades since her run-in with Michael, and Laurie has become a doomsday survivalist, hellbent on exacting revenge for the inevitable night that she reunites with the thing that murdered her friends and traumatized her for life. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), however, wish that she would let the paranoia go and live a normal life. But it’s not so easy for Laurie; she knows that unless she puts Michael in the ground herself, he’ll haunt her forever.

This new backstory is established slowly through the film’s prologue, which follows a pair of true crime podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) as they attempt interviews with both Michael, held in captivity at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium, and Laurie, holed up in her jerry-rigged isolation cabin. Through their probing, we learn of the crises and drama Laurie has experienced in the years since that fateful Halloween night and how she’s changed from the girl-next-door to the woman she is today. Yet even throughout all this exposition and character development, there’s still time for blood and carnage as Michael makes his escape and begins his rampage across Haddonfield.

And it’s quite the rampage. The body count of this new Halloween is far higher than the original, and a good majority of the prior sequels. There’s some great, varied sequences of The Shape doing his thing, including the oft-promoted scene in the truck stop bathroom that also acts as a nod to Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995). The brutality of the kills in the film is also worth noting, as Michael is far more savage than we’ve ever seen him, barring the Zombie films. Given that in this timeline Michael’s been stewing in his rage for forty years and now has the chance to finally unleash it, it makes sense that the kills are extra twisted.

What’s interesting about the film, especially given that it was promoted as the final showdown between Laurie and Michael–not to mention the theme of predator and prey throughout–is that Michael doesn’t actually appear to be hunting Laurie once he escapes. His kills are mainly random, whereas in the original, we see the progression of how he chooses to stalk and dispatch with Laurie and her cronies. In this installment, he doesn’t interact with anyone in Laurie’s life until late in the film, right before the third act showdown. Which, let’s be honest, is why everyone is here after all.

The final face off more than lives up to expectations. It’s a sustained, nasty affair that is visceral to watch unfold and emotionally taxing in the best way to experience as a viewer. Laurie’s booby-trapped home acts as the perfect battleground, and there’s all sorts of unexpected developments that make you wonder just how exactly this confrontation is going to end and who is going to come out on top, if anyone. Several moments are nail-bitingly tense, and the confluence of the main characters at the house during the conflict means the audience is constantly on the edge of their seat in fear of Michael’s next offing.

The cast is solid and supportive, with newcomer Matichak grounding the high school sequences that primarily serve as body fodder, and Greer as whiny, disbelieving Karen getting a nice redemptive moment at the climax. Naturally, the film belongs to Curtis, who is sensational in the role that launched her career and still defines her as a performer today. As a vehicle to reunite Laurie with Michael, the film triumphs, but it also succeeds quite well as a respectable, entertaining entry into the larger Halloween franchise and one that rewards longtime, diehard fans. Once again, Michael has come home. And so have we.

Halloween

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #29: BOYS IN THE TREES (2016)

@craiggors

A coming-of-age story all taking place over one night–Halloween night, to be specific–involving ghosts, werewolves, bullies, creepy forests, life, love, romance, death, and the power of imagination. Interested yet?

Halloween, 1997. The last night of high school for Corey (Toby Wallace), his domineering friend Jango (Justin Holborow), and their skater gang. Childhood is over and the world of adulthood beckons. But Corey’s past has unfinished business. Business that must be resolved tonight. When he encounters Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former childhood friend now victimized by Jango’s cruel and insatiable bullying, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old times sake. The two estranged teenagers find themselves reviewing memories, dreams, and fears with one another in what soon turns into a surreal and dangerous game that will leave them both drastically altered.

Boys in the Trees is a nostalgia-fueled Halloween romp that will speak to the spirit of all true 90’s kids, fans of Stranger Things, and lovers of the spookiest time of year, no matter your age. The story unfolds slowly, revealing truths and mysteries to us as we progress. From the beginning, there is a promise of conventional horror thrills that is denied in favor of delivering something decidedly different and unexpected, but it achieves the same effect. Suspense is still generated in surprising and meaningful ways. The final turn loses a bit of the film’s careful balance and leaves the ending feeling a bit uncanny but not full-on phony. It’s not the most well-calculated move for the story, but it’s not a hole in the ship either.

In many ways, Boys in the Trees is a love story. Not romantic love, perhaps (though there are a few subtle hints that present the possibility and sexuality is a running theme), but the deep and sweeping love of first friendship. Corey and Jonah’s bygone kinship is something we come to understand was once binding, special, and powerful; something lost to the winds that echoes on this Halloween night, this night of the dead, as all lost things do. We’re treated to a few flashback scenes that confirm this and play out an important plot point, but not until late in the film do we really come to understand this based solely on the performances of the actors playing Corey and Jonah, both of whom are phenomenal, committed, and real. Toby Wallace, in particular, does an excellent job at communicating a mixture of surprise, guilt, and confusion as Corey discovers how much he still has in common with his old friend and pain at the buried truths that come to light during their time together.

The film isn’t heavy on scares, and the ones that do pop up are more creepy than frightening, but it’s all in keeping with the tone and thematic overhaul of the film’s message. It’s more focused on showcasing the trials and tribulations of growing up set against a Halloween backdrop. Nicholas Verso is a confident and assured filmmaker who conjures up surreal scenes and dreamscape imagery that wavers back and forth between sinister and ethereal, chief among them a memorable Day of the Dead-themed house party. The runtime might be a bit long, and the melancholic metaphors might seem obvious at first but by the time things wrap up and come full circle, the emotional imprint becomes deeply affecting.

Boys in the Trees is reminiscent of The Halloween Tree, a story about souls moving between places on Halloween night when spirits cross into this world with ease and if we are not careful, we may also cross into theirs. The narrative is dark, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world and how toxic masculinity so easily traps boys and slowly destroys them, body and soul, before they’re even aware of themselves as functioning humans. Verso doesn’t let us look away from these hard truths, lingering on looks, songs, and feelings to make his point, but despite the heartbreaking turns in the story, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note of hope and optimism. In Boys in the Trees, we are called to remind ourselves that no matter how deep our pain may be, we must still remember to dream. To dream very, very big.

Boys in the Trees

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #23: THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)

@craiggors

Norwegian director Andre Øvredal followed up his satirical dark fantasy monster movie Trollhunter (2010) with a deadly serious chiller, also his English-language debut, that became a sleeper hit and in short time has gained traction as a beloved contemporary horror classic.

Small town coroner Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) runs his family business out of a state-of-the-art mortuary and crematorium bunker underneath the family homestead. With son-in-training Austin (Emile Hirsch) assisting him, the two stay late one night in order to perform an autopsy on a recently delivered, and unidentified, female corpse from a local murder scene. The corpse exhibits no outward signs of distress or notable markings. But as the duo begin their extensive examinations in order to produce a c.o.d (cause of death) for the demanding sheriff, dark questions about the mysterious girl arise, and their answers prove sinister.

One excellent feature of the film to note right off the bat is the perfectly mapped structure of the film. The story is entirely linear in the best way, providing a sense of order the viewer can anticipate and follow. Father and son embark on their normal examination process the way they would for any other “new arrival,” and we’re told that this will involve a cursory exterior examination, an inspection of the internal organs, and then finally peeling back the skull to tackle the brain. All the while, they will speculate on possible c.o.d. based on their findings. The great thing about this set-up is that, after strange things begin to happen in that cold, clean basement, the viewer knows that there are more mysteries coming. They still have the next step ahead of them. As such, a very tangible sense of dread, anticipation, and danger develops.

Throughout the procedure there’s some excellent dialogue exchanged between the two leads, Tommy and Austin. The elder Tilden is unceremonial and by-the-books in his work, as one needs to be in such a profession, and Austin is the loyal son who sacrifices time spent with his girlfriend to help his father get the work done. What’s great is that, even with this sacrifice, the relationship between father and son is never painted as strained or difficult as so many films do in order to fashion drama and tension. They are normal people thrown into a very abnormal situation and it is their relationship that allows them to move together through this trial. Hirsch and Cox both deserve credit for this, and for creating real characters easy to identify with and follow on their unusual journey. But the anchoring performance of the film would have to be Olwen Kelly as the Jane Doe corpse. Playing dead is an art, and a difficult one at that. She’s got no lines, barely moves, and is nude pretty much the entire time, and yet somehow still manages to deliver a great performance. Who would have guessed?

The film is also, thankfully, full of frights. The scares are not necessarily abundant, but there’s just enough, and they are so excellently and deftly executed that I want to avoid even the tiniest bit of discussion of them here in order to save you the surprise later. I will say that even if you spot one of the scares coming early on (there’s some pretty obvious throwaway dialogue that hints at it), you’ll still find your heart racing and your pulse quickening when things start to go awry. 

If all of this sounds sufficiently vague, then good. The less clues you have to the mystery, the better. Piece by piece the film weaves together who Jane Doe is, why her body bears no signs of outward physical trauma, and what exactly happened to her and the revelation is both haunting and satisfying, though the third act itself is not entirely original. But such a minor flaw can be forgiven for the sake of great, likable characters, a steady supply of the creepiness and unease, and beautiful production design. The coroner’s facility in the basement is an excellent set, creating a sort of locked-room effect as the action never leaves the mortuary. There’s lots of playing with shadows and corners and the excellent placement of a corner mirror that figures in some of the film’s most terrifying moments. A definite recommendation, full of spooks that will make it impossible for you to just lie still…

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #22: HELL FEST (2018)

@craiggors

Lovers of local haunts will find this bloody little gem to be right up their alley, and an excellent film to enjoy in October and bask in all the Halloween happiness that comes with it. It’s our time once again, Chatters. Let us fly into the dark, dark night…

Perma-studier Natalie (Amy Forsyth) comes to visit her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) during Halloweekend in the hopes that they can reconnect after drifting apart from attending different colleges. Natalie is dismayed to find that she won’t get to hang out with Brooke alone, however, as Brooke’s wild friend Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and her boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio) have secured six tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror carnival made up of rides, haunts, games, and other assorted frights. It’s all jump scares and cuddly moments with Gavin (Roby Attal) until Natalie realizes that their group is being stalked and taunted by a masked serial killer posing as one of the actors.

Hell Fest accomplishes two feats that make it worth your time. One, it delivers an old school slasher story straight out of the 80’s slasher heyday, with heads getting pummeled by hammers, eyes jabbed with syringes, a group of relatable, obnoxious teens who are somehow all likable, and a creepy, silent killer with an equally creepy mask and a creative repertoire of kill tactics. Add in the themed, expansive-yet-contained amusement park setting, and it’s like watching a lost Carpenter or Cunningham film. The production team nailed the set design and clearly did their homework when it comes to professional haunts. The various mazes and rides look like they could have been lifted from your hometown haunt; colorful, crazy, scary, and detailed. And they’re pulling double duty as well. Not only do the sets and extras serve to establish a sense of authenticity, but they’re the source of a lot of the film’s scares as well. As such, Hell Fest becomes the one horror film where excessive jump scares don’t wear thin.

The leading ladies (Forsyth, Edwards, & Taylor-Klaus) shine, and their chemistry is natural and believable for college students. Taylor-Klaus in particular brings a perfect energy to her character and steals every frame she’s in (something she did in the Scream TV series as well). Any annoyance felt with the characters is due to the writing, not their portrayal, and it’s lucky that the performances are so strong because the writing is certainly the film’s weakest point. This clunkiness is likely due to the fact that there are three credited screenwriters and two story contributors, which is far too many cooks in the kitchen for such straightforward horror fare.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Hell Fest, however, is that it’s not actually frightening until the final scene; or rather, the implications of that scene and the resulting question of whether or not we are safe anywhere in society anymore. It’s a chilling coda to end the movie on, while also opening the door to a potential sequel or franchise, and I for one would not be opposed at all. As long as any future properties adhere to the standards of the original, they’re sure to be one hell of a good time.

Hell Fest

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

Battle of the Haunted House Films (Not the Ones You’re Thinking Of)

@melmoy

We’ve seen a lot of haunted house movies out there. But there are precious few films about haunted houses—that is, the Halloween time attraction of staged scenes and complicit audience members. It seems to make sense. It’s a little too obvious, right? We expect to be scared inside a haunted house because it’s what we’re there for.  Things will jump around corners, spiders will drop from the ceiling, creatures might chase us down a hallway. The beauty of a haunted house film, in the traditional sense, is the uncanny, the sudden vilification of a sanctuary. But, a few gem films out there have mastered the art of making something incredibly obvious, still entirely disturbing. The Houses That October Built (2014) and Hell House LLC (2015) are two films that tackle the terror waiting behind the walls of a Halloween attraction, but they handle it in very different ways.

Let’s go chronologically.

The Houses That October Built is a 2014 film written and directed by Bobby Roe, who has since been tapped to write a film based in The Walking Dead universe. It follows a group of documentary filmmakers who are traveling across the country, visiting famous haunted attractions all throughout the month of October until their grand finale in New Orleans on Halloween night. Along the way, they find themselves stalked by an anonymous group associated with an underground, extreme haunt. Hell House LLC is a 2015 film written and directed by Stephen Cognetti about a production crew behind a new haunted attraction where, on opening night, a tragedy took place in the basement of the haunt that still hasn’t been fully explained.

The films have similarities and some stark differences. First off, both films feature a predominantly male cast with a single female in the group. It’s not a deep take, nor is it important to the plot, but in the larger conversation of how horror likes to feature diversity, both films—written by men—depict a group of young white men chasing a dangerous dream, with a single female in the group who gets some obligatory sexualization from at least one or more of the men around her. It’s frustrating, especially when parts of the film lean hard into the flaring tensions which usually means angry white men screaming at each other, occasionally throwing a shove or punch. Both films also focus on in this female as the final escapee/victim of the situation. With Sara (Hell House) being the only one to make it out of the house alive and Brandy (Houses That October Built) as the one holding the camera at the end. There’s an interesting psychological here to explore, the Halloween fantasy of a group of men secluded with a woman in a haunted attraction where she has no agency or place in the story until they are thrust upon her as the men around her drop like flies.

Let’s look at some more similarities: they’re both found footage. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the medium in 1999, found footage has been utilized by independent filmmakers, likely because it’s so cheap. It’s easier to hand a camera off to an actor than it is to pay a few cameramen for omniscient camera shots, so steady cam work, or figure out how to get a crane shot. It’s also a way to skirt on creativity, no one is going to complain about the cinematography when it’s purposefully messy. No one’s going to compliment either, of course. But it’s become a quick way for film school hopefuls to get some stories out there and it’s mostly come at the cost of the medium itself. Found footage gets elicits something of a groan these days. Since Blair Witch, few films have found believable occasions for a camera to be capturing the escalating events and nuanced stories in between jump scares. Neither of these films are particularly engaging where that is concerned. In Houses That October Built, they’re putting together a travel documentary. Why? How are they funding this? Who is the audience? Doesn’t matter even though it should. In Hell House footage has been turned over to an investigative reporter that’s a series of home movies about the weeks creating the new haunt. Don’t know why we’re filming or why when someone wakes up in the middle of the night their first instinct is to turn on a camera before taking a drink of water. But whatever, in both instances we’re along for the ride, however contrived our reasons are for being there.

The content is where these films differ, and also where they are at their strongest. Houses That October Built takes on a fear we don’t really talk about: how vulnerable we are while in a haunted attraction. Dr. Margee Kerr cites in much of her work that the reasons we find haunted attractions so fun is the assumption of safety, the ability to play out a fantasy while knowing we can go to the bar afterward. Houses That October Built twists this. The characters are not safe, we’re not sure if the ghoul in makeup is holding a plastic knife or a real one, whether that’s real blood or not, if that person staring at them is part of the haunt or something else. And it forces you to think about that in your own experiences. This is especially true for the over 18 “extreme haunts” that utilize full physical contact and safe words. You sign waivers and assume the chain saw they’re waving in your face isn’t real. But what if it was? The demons in this film are ultimately human, a group of serial killers using internet forums and urban legends to lure people into their extreme, and fatal, haunted attraction. It’s clever and unsettling and knocks at the door of some real psychological questions about haunted attractions and the people who seek them out.

Hell House takes a very different approach. The terror of attraction guests is a quick jumping-off point, not much else. We begin with cell phone footage which, according to the lore of the film, is the only known footage of the night of a terrible disaster that killed 15 people, both staff and attendees. The footage is jumbled, the event confusing, but the meat of the film will ultimately take us back to that night and the truth behind it. This film doesn’t go as deep psychologically as Houses That October Built. It’s not exploring a subconscious fear. Ultimately, it’s little more, at the end of the day, than a haunted house film with a very unique setting and premise. But that’s also what makes it fun. The group is staying in a house of horrors of their own creation. If it dives in their psychologies and stories, maybe that element would be more pronounced. But, it’s ultimately a movie that is fun and creepy because the idea of sleeping in a haunted attraction is fun and creepy. The demons aren’t human here, there’s talk of satanic rituals in the building before they bought it, suicides and creepy histories. The end makes it clear something supernatural was going on the entire time. There’s no deeper meaning, it’s just some fun atmosphere and creepy scares.

That being said, a lot was left on the cutting room floor that would have made for a truly complex film. Through some Q&A on a reddit thread, director and writer Stephen Cognetti shed some light on the larger story going on in the film—a story that was largely cut out when the script switched to a found-footage documentary. The idea behind much of the film’s plot was cosmic forces and fate, if you can believe that. The original owners of the hotel were cultists who opened up a hungry gate to the other side. Those monsters seemed to never be satisfied. Alex and his crew are drawn to the hotel when their capital runs out for their haunt in New York City, the hotel luring them there knowing they’d bring with them even more souls to feed off of once their haunted attraction opened. It’s an interesting dive into similar predestination themes in The House on Haunted Hill, the agency of place memory where there is history, the way we line up for violent scares every Halloween and fake bloodshed can be bait to us like sharks—or more like minows. But, as Cognetti pointed out in his reddit discussions, it’s hard to get all of that into a tight 90 minute found footage film. Which begs the question: why do a found footage film if it sacrifices the better portions of your story?

So, if I were to put these in a battle next to each other, who wins? Houses That October Built is psychological and unique and takes full advantage of its premise. Hell House is fun and atmospheric and the ideal lights off movie. The answer? Watch both this Halloween and decide for yourself.

31 by 31 Challenge #21: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2 (2017)

@craiggors

Though the fount footage sub-genre and paranormal investigators motif had become stale by the mid-2010’s, The Houses October Built (2014) was a sleeper hit thanks to its realism and authentic presentation of the world of “extreme haunts,” full contact immersive experiences that blur the line between entertainment and psychological torture. And perhaps even physical torture. How does the sequel stack up? Let’s investigate…

Recovering from the trauma of their ordeal last Halloween–which involved kidnapping and apparent attempted murder–by the mysterious group the Blue Skeleton–who take “extreme haunt” to another level–five friends decide they must face their fears in order to move on with their lives. Heading back out on the road to visit more haunted house attractions, signs of the Blue Skeleton start appearing again and it seems that a new, fresh terror is just around the bend.

Houses 2, like its predecessor, is a meta-film. This go-around, it is also a love letter to some of the most famous names and faces in American haunt culture. The group travel to and namedrop real extreme haunted attractions, including Ohio’s “Haunted Hoochie” and Philadelphia’s “Terror Behind the Walls” (I’ve been, and I definitely recommend btw). There’s cameos from actual organizers, artists, and researchers that work with and in these haunts to create waking nightmares. It’s an illuminating peek behind the curtain for people who don’t know just how much organization it takes to put on these incredible attractions, and just how big their culture has become. In this fashion, Houses 2 is a send-up and celebration of all things Halloween, particularly in how this holiday can create a sense of community among artists, scarehounds, and horror freaks, much in the way the first film was as well.

There’s a fun turn the story takes this time around where our heroes’ documentary is inter-cut with voyeuristic footage of the group, letting us know that the true subject of this exploration is not the haunts anymore, it’s the people hunting them down. The retconning that resets the board opens the door to some inconsistencies and plot holes, and if you scrutinize too close you start to wonder why you should even care about any of these people because the film doesn’t make any sense but I think the trick here is to watch Houses 2 not as a horror film but as a horror documentary. It works far better this way, with each visit to a haunt just a chapter in a larger wrap-around story that the Blue Skeleton confrontation at the end ties up as neatly as can be expected.

The extreme haunt phenomenon is on the rise. It’s fascinating to experience, to read about in analytic texts like Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (author and book both featured in this film), and to watch here in Houses 2. People are voluntarily paying to be subjected to potentially traumatizing experiences; the privilege to be emotionally rocked in the confines of a supposedly safe space. Is it a jaded mentality commonly attributed to millennials? Adrenaline-addicted experience-over-possessions mentality? Something else entirely? It’s titillating territory to explore, and The Houses October 2 is the perfect place to begin your hunt.

The Houses October Built 2

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #20: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT (2014)

@craiggors

Found footage has been called a horror subgenre that burned bright and faded fast. Aside from a few milestones that utilized the format in creative and forward-thinking ways, found footage has mostly been repetitive, lazy, and uncreative. On the plus, it’s a great genre to work in for low-budget and indie filmmakers, a group of artists whose creativity is often more unrestrained than mainstream and studio moviemakers. It’s from these minds that we can still get creative found footage. Or, at the very least, a genuine effort to deliver something unpredictable.

Beneath the fake blood and cheap masks of countless haunted house attractions across the country, there are whispers of truly terrifying alternatives. Looking to find an authentic, blood-curdling good fright for Halloween, five friends set off on a road trip in an RV to track down these underground haunts. Just when their search seems to reach a dead end, strange and disturbing things start happening around them. Soon it becomes clear that the haunt has come to them.

Halloween and horror go hand in hand and diehard fans love to see horror movies taking place in, around, or about All Hallows’ Eve. It’s just our jam, and it’s why genre lovers have added The Houses October Built to their season lineup since its release five years ago, and why there seems to be a growing niche genre of Halloween-haunts-gone-wrong films. With the basest ingredients, Houses is a great Halloween movie. It captures the aura of autumn and the chill factor of this spookiest of holidays without being overly cloying about either. It feels and looks like real-world Halloween.

The reality factor, always a necessity for any convincing found footage film and rarely one that achieves its goal, is heightened by convincing performances from the capable cast. Zack (Zack Andrews) is the spirited ringleader always pushing the friend group into their crazy schemes and plots, Brandy (Brandy Schaefer) is the logical mom-friend happy to have fun but also always on the lookout for when its time to call it quits, and Jeff (Jeff Larson) is charismatic but underused. The life of the group and the movie is Mikey (Mikey Roe), an opinionated jokester who draws you into his onscreen presence. We all know guys like Mikey. They’re great to have around in large groups because they always make sure the fun keeps flowing. This is a seasoned group, committed to behaving how people actually behave (as far as the script allows, of course), which is unusual in most found footage fodder. 

The Houses October Built is a well-structured movie that doesn’t rely on standard scares, is brave enough to provide you with intelligent, capable protagonists who feel like individuals and not just “characters,” and an engaging story. Are there missteps? Of course. Some of the maneuvers feel flat or ill-thought out at times, but the movie is still a break from the pack. It’s not quite Blair Witch greatness, but I’d comfortably rank it alongside other strong found footage gems like Trollhunter (2010) and [REC] (2007). So even if you’re sick to death of found footage, give this one a try. You’ll be pleased with the Hallowed atmosphere, interesting, relatable characters, and terrifying sense of realism. Just, you know, maybe watch it after you’ve gone to your local haunted house. If you’re still around, that is…

The Houses October Built

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #19: HELL HOUSE LLC (2015)

@craiggors

It’s no secret in the horror community, and amongst general film fans, that the found footage sub-genre is drastically hit or miss. For every Cloverfield (2008) and Blair Witch Project (1999) there’s a dozen clunkers that waste the time, money, and brain cells of the viewer. Happily, Hell House LLC (2015) is no clunker, and while it may not have reached the exalted heights of REC (2007) or Paranormal Activity (2009), it’s achieved quite a cult status and accompanying fan base in the few short years since it’s release, not to mention two sequels of decent though not matching quality.

The film presents itself as a documentary featuring the recovered footage of a group of haunted attraction employees who opened a haunt, Hell House, in an abandoned hotel in Abaddon, New York, along with accompanying interviews and news clips speculating about the nature of a mysterious tragedy that occurred on opening night of the haunt that resulted in the deaths of several people. Through interviews with Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the only surviving member of the Hell House crew, we come to learn and see of the strange and sinister events that plagued the production of Hell House leading up to opening night, and we begin to piece together how and why everything went so horrifically wrong.

The buildup of tension is masterful in Hell House LLC, reminiscent of Paranormal Activity‘s use of title cards every time night fell and the resultant mounting dread. The use of different footage from varying sources speculating on the cause and nature of the tragedy at Hell House layers the mystery, each of them dropping subtle hints and clues for the audience to piece together an increasingly macabre puzzle. It’s an effective way for the filmmakers to manipulate the audience into feeling exactly what they wish the viewer to feel for any given scene and it works masterfully.

The characters aren’t too far from generic horror stock models, but they do break the mold in that, for the most part, they don’t make cliche or stupid mistakes, a welcome and refreshing change of pace. Though we don’t get to know any of them all that deeply, they’re a charming and likable group and it’s easy to feel for them when the scares start mounting. There are few, if any, jump scares to be found in the film. Director Stephen Cognetti uses a subtle hand to weave in quiet moments of terror that serve to elevate the story and tick up the suspense, a true slow-burn approach absent in much found footage but highly effective here.

It’s all about atmosphere in Hell House LLC, and the film is a perfect capsule of autumn in the northeast as well as the world of Halloween haunts and the community that supports and puts on haunted attractions. In many ways, the movie is more concerned with establishing and maintaining a sinister mood and an atmosphere of dread than with closing narrative loops, and the ending is offered to the audience with gaps to be filled by each individual viewer (or, I suppose, the two sequels that have followed). Those that like their mysteries completely unraveled may find this irritating, but there’s no denying that this is one hell of a tense and entertaining ride.

Hell House LLC

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror