Horror Movies

Summer Horrors 2017

Find out what horrors await you this summer on the big screen. Here’s a rundown of the fear-filled films I’m most looking forward to seeing in a dark, cold room.

Our proto-Ripley, portrayed by real-life chameleon Katherine Waterston

Our proto-Ripley, portrayed by real-life chameleon Katherine Waterston

Alien Covenant

After nearly forty years, Ridley Scott is back at the helm of a film called Alien. His landmark 1979 film of that name is one of my all-time favorites, a seminal film that synthesizes sci-fi with horror and then elevates that extraterrestrial lovechild into art. In 2012, Scott returned to this world with Prometheus, a very ambitious film that didn’t quite land everything it attempted. But it was entertaining nonetheless and it made me grateful to see Scott return to the world he created, this time with a blockbuster-sized budget. Alien Covenant will begin to bridge the time between Prometheus and the original Alien. And at 79 years old, Ridley’s still got it. I can’t wait.

Nicole ain't kiddin' around (I instantly regret that joke)

Nicole ain't kiddin' around (I instantly regret that joke)

The Beguiled

This shot in my backyard, echoing earworms of plot details at me. I try to avoid being spoiled, but I did get a sense of what the movie might be, and the trailer for this film confirmed those whispers: this movie will be more horror/thriller than romance.

 What is it? It’s a re-adaptation/reimagining (coughremakecough) of the novel A Painted Devil, a gothic romance novel about a wounded Union soldier taken in by a girl’s school in Virginia. It was famously adapted into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. That flickerfest was ALSO called The Beguiled, a title so intriguing that the book was later re-published under the same name. This time, Sophia Coppola is at the helm and she, dear friends, is a different bird than the first film’s director, Don Siegel, who famously directed Dirty Harry. And it’s her take on this dark material that I’m most excited for.

/hardpass

/hardpass

It Comes at Night

Arthouse distributor A24 has earned my trust as tastemakers of the first order. They don’t specialize in genre films, but they’ve released some great ones, including The Witch, Ex Machina, Tusk and Under The Skin. That’s in addition to pulling down a Best Picture win for Moonlight earlier this year. So, they know what they’re doing.

Directed by Trey Edward Schultz, It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as a father who has successfully protected his family against an unnatural threat while living in a remote cabin in the woods. They take in another family desperate for shelter. And paranoia creeps in.

Edgerton directed his own psychological thriller, The Gift, which turned out great. So I assume he also saw something great in this script. So, here’s hoping.

Hair on point

Hair on point

The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Another promising horror thriller from A24. I’m excited to see Mad Men actress Kiernan Shipka on the big screen alongside Emma Roberts. Both are incredible talents. I met Emma a few years ago while she was shooting American Horror Story in New Orleans and found her to be cool and super-sharp. She’s got a big career ahead of her and I love that she’s building it inside the horror genre.

I don’t know an enormous amount about this movie, but the trailer alone sells me. Also, A24.

Prop stolen from the set of 1997'S WISHMASTER

Prop stolen from the set of 1997'S WISHMASTER

Wish Upon

This script made the 2015 Black List (the annual list of the best unproduced screenplays), and the trailer makes clear it’s a high-concept horror thriller. It’s directed by John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer who rode shotgun with horror master James Wan on The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2, Dead Silence and Death Sentence before directing Annabelle, a prequel to The Conjuring. Can’t wait to see what he does with such a great script.

"Hey, Hey, Hell."

"Hey, Hey, Hell."

The Dark Tower

Was there any doubt this would make the list? I’ve avoided the trailers for this film so that it’s not in my head as I read Stephen King’s series. I don’t know how much this movie will spoil the books. It’s thought to be a mix of story from The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands with elements from The Wind Through The Keyhole. All I can do is enjoy the fantastic posters that feature Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, and keep reading.

The Aslyum's mockbuster title: "The Succubus Mummy"

The Aslyum's mockbuster title: "The Succubus Mummy"

The Mummy

I’d heard Universal was attempting to make a cinematic universe from their treasure trove of iconic horror characters - think Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, The Invisible Man - so, when I saw this film on their release slate, I assumed it would be another big-budget, origin-story entry into that budding world. So, surprised was I when cinema superhero Tom Cruise was cast - and the He-Mummy turned out to be a She-Mummy.

The trailer makes it out to be as much action as horror, similar to Dracula Untold, a film that took a critical beating, but I found a lot of bright points in it. I think Universal is still fine-tuning the look and feel of these films, but if you remember, so was Marvel in the early days. Iron Man was the first film that nailed the tone that has minted billions for Marvel, but go back and look at The Incredible Hulk. It’s technically a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but came before Iron Man and feels slightly different. I hope Universal finds their stride this time and we see a creatively and financially fruitful revival of their monsters. They’ve been stuck in a sarcophagus for too long.

Another /hardpass

Another /hardpass

Annabelle: Creation

“A prequel to a spinoff?” says you. “Hell, yeah,” says I. And a large part of my enthusiasm for this upcoming film is that David F. Sandberg directed it. Last year, he helmed Lights Out, one of my favorite theatrical experience of 2016. The trailer doesn’t give too much away, and I don’t want to know anymore. I love the idea of Annabelle and I’m pumped to see what suspense Sandberg brings to the franchise.

If I’ve missed some upcoming movies that you’re interested in, please tell me in the comments and I’ll check them out!

- Micah

The Silence of Jonathan Demme

Director Jonathan Demme died this week. His long career is speckled with unique films across a wide spectrum of genres. But I loved him for two films: The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia.

While some critics may want to label The Silence of the Lambs a drama or thriller, it's really more than that. Yes, it's presented with the familiar trappings of a police procedural. But it is a horror film! With not one monster, but two. And if that's not enough to convince you that it should be on your shelf next to The Shining, then pay close attention to the violence and gore in the third act. Hannibal Lecter isn't just a slithering scarecrow. He’s a brutal killer that would give any slasher a run for their money.

And yet Silence isn't a slasher flick. It’s a different kind of horror. It’s a drama. And a thriller. And a character study of two star-crossed humans who end up needing each other. It’s a wondrous work of art that shows what can be done within the genre.

The horror genre gets a bad rap. It's dismissed as exploitative and gratuitous. And sometimes it is. Some of my favorite horror films are both of those things. When award season rolls around, you won't see many horror films among the nominees. There have been exceptions, most noticeably The Exorcist, which won two Oscars and a Best Picture nomination in 1973. It wasn’t until the 64th Academy Awards in 1991 that Silence of the Lambs became the first horror film to win Best Picture. In fact, it won all of the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Demme was that director, and deservedly so. What he did with Silence was nothing short of amazing. He took a smart, terrifying book and turned it into a cinematic horror masterpiece. In the process, he brought to life two iconic characters: Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. I’d argue serial killer Buffalo Bill is a third, given his resurrection by South Park and meme manufacturers across the internet. His scenes are certainly among the most quoted.

One of the film’s most prominent themes is the immoral way in which men treat women. Starling is repeatedly portrayed under the gaze of the men that surround her: her co-workers, her supervisors, and ultimately, Buffalo Bill. All of these men have advantages over her in head-to-head competition. In the most extreme example of this, Bill hunts Starling in the dark with the aid of night vision.

Law enforcement has long been a boys’ club. And yet Starling is a smart, driven disruptor, frequently outshining her fellows. Dr. Chilton, who heads the hospital where Lecter is incarcerated, is one of her creepiest admirers. He makes a pass at her that she declines. Yet, even though Chilton has 24/7 access to Lecter, it is Starling who truly connects with Lecter in only a few sessions. Starling is my favorite kind of feminist. She’s not trying to keep up with the boys; she beats them by just being herself.

The feminist themes of the film were well discussed upon its release, and in the quarter century since. There have also been accusations that Silence is homophobic, transphobic or both. Many of these accusations were targeted where almost all film criticism is targeted: the director’s chair.

And there Demme sat.

I think these accusations are demonstrably baseless. The film itself makes very clear Buffalo Bill is not actually transsexual. “There’s no correlation in the literature between transexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive,” Starling tells a caged Lecter, Bill’s former psychotherapist. 

“Billy is not a real transsexual,” Lecter replies. “But he thinks he is. He tries to be.”

Further into the film, from beneath his now iconic mask, Lecter mentions to Senator Martin that Buffalo Bill was referred to him by another patient, Benjamin Raspail. “They were lovers, you see,” Lecter says, indicating that Bill might be gay. But later, when Starling enters Buffalo Bill’s lair, there are Polaroids of Bill with female strippers on his lap, offering more proof that he is not a simple, sexual caricature. Buffalo Bill may be a proper villain, but Demme did not craft him to ridicule gay men or transsexuals.

Rather, Buffalo Bill is more easily explained within the film’s more obvious feminist themes. Bill’s heinous acts are really an indictment of heterosexual men. Those men who cast their glares at little Clarice, the beautiful and small woman before them. Their glares are possessive: they seek to own her in some way, to exert authority or control over her. Buffalo Bill is the fullest, most horrible manifestation of this desire. “He covets,” as Dr. Lecter says. Bill wants to so thoroughly dominate women that he has to destroy their lives - the source of their will - to do it. It’s a trait Bill shares with real life killer Ted Bundy.

Remember all those male law enforcement officers that stare at Starling? They are the ones who created the nickname, “Buffalo Bill.” One of them explains the nickname by saying the killer “skins his humps.” They aren’t just calling it like it is. The nickname is an expression of their own misogyny. It’s based on their own thin misunderstanding of who the killer is. It’s also the reason they don’t solve the case. They’re too blind to see deeper into Jame Gumb’s psyche, accepting a knee-jerk, surface-level judgement about the killer as correct.

In author Thomas Harris’ book, there is evidence that corroborates Lecter’s statement about Buffalo Bill not being a transsexual, but thinking he’s one. A surgeon at Johns Hopkins is consulted about applicants for sexual reassignment surgery, and refuses to share the list with the FBI. We find out Jame Gumb did indeed apply for surgery, but was rejected because he hid violence in his past. It was determined that in the judgement of medical professionals, he wasn’t really a transsexual. Interestingly, there was a scene shot to this effect but it was ultimately not present in the final cut. (Which may have been for pacing reasons, rather than storytelling reasons…there’s no way to know).

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Demme remarked how fortunate he was to work with a story from Thomas Harris’s “extraordinarily moral and amazing book.” He thought he was making a picture with a clear moral viewpoint. And that view hasn’t changed.

In a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post, Demme is asked about the film and he speaks at length. “I regret that [in the movie], we weren’t clear enough. I know the information’s in there, but there’s a lot of information in there. Buffalo Bill wasn’t interested in…he didn’t wish to be another gender. He didn’t really have a sexual preference. He loathed himself….he wanted to transform himself so that there was no part of ‘him’ in the ‘new him.’ And becoming a woman…that was his method of doing it.”

Buffalo Bill (Jame Gumb) hated himself, and wanted to become something completely different.

In the aftermath of Silence of the Lambs release, Demme’s profile as a director grew. He could have made any film he wanted. He chose to make Philadelphia, the first major release to deal with AIDS and the injustices that surround it. Most of which affected the LGBT community.

It’s a film filled with tenderness and wit.

By all accounts, so was Demme.

In the Snows of Stephen King's "The Shining"

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Shining.

I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie on the big screen many times, perhaps more than any other film. It is so visually compelling, wondrously operatic in its exploration of big spaces. And it’s always playing at midnight somewhere.

My instinct is to not say much here about Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. It's a topic that's been discussed to death. It's a film I happen to love and believe deserves discussion. It's also a film of such quality that it kept me from reading the novel for a very long time.

In fact, I’ve stayed away from reading many of King's greatest works because I've seen the film adaptations first. Now, I’m both embarrassed and proud to report that - after several failed attempts over the course of two decades - I finally made my way through Stephen King’s The Shining.

I'm going to focus on the many magical parts of King's novel that did not make it in to Stanley Kubrick's film. Yes, the faces of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall rode shotgun with me on my trike ride throughout the Overlook Hotel. But there were also things that were new. Things now very special to me.

Ye Beware of Spoilers Below.

The Hedge Animals

They used to call the internet “The Information Super Highway.” Now, it’s the Information Spoiler Highway. And yet, I have somehow traveled untouched over the landmines buried just below its surface. From King’s first description of the animals, static and desperately in need of a trimming, I found them terrifying. And when they began to move, chasing Danny and Wendy and Hallorann, they became truly nightmare-inducing.

Why did Kubrick not include these? He was a gifted technician, and yet, even he would have had trouble with the technology of the day. Stop-motion techniques seem like they would be the best fit, or perhaps even animation. But Kubrick was such a perfectionist, I doubt these met his exacting visual standards.

Those Wasps

What a powerful metaphor for evil. Wasps are creatures that cause great pain. And seemingly offered no benefit to the world. Bees produce honey and and pollinate flowers. Wasps are invaders that cause immense pain, and to children in particular. How many of you had a traumatic encounter with those winged demons as a child?

The wasp nest is such an effective analogy for both the hotel and Jack. Jack is a man who is sometimes filled with evil, particularly when he's been drinking. When we meet him at the beginning of King’s novel, he’s a man who has overcome that evil. But like the dead wasps that are still in the nest, Jack's demons are only lying dormant, ready to strike when you've written them off. In a similar way, the Overlook Hotel is a successful hotel. It's been in continuous operation for a very long time. But the many horrible things that have happened at the hotel (detailed in such vivid terms by King) lie dormant like dead wasps. “They, too, are dead,” Jack thinks. But the hotel's demonic history is not dead: and it lies in wait to destroy Danny and his family.

While the wasp nest is a powerful literary analogy, I don't know if it would be as cinematic as other aspects of King’s novel. And it would take up a great deal of screen time including the different beats of that storyline. And we already have the analogy of the Overlook Hotel itself to Jack Torrance’s psyche. Do you need another in a movie?

Roque One

The game of Roque holds a certain fascination for me. It symbolizes upper-class life. It also seems like exactly the type of game middle-class people would play while on vacation at a hotel like the Overlook, imaging themselves to be upper class.

The Boiler, Baby

The boiler is an ever present nuclear bomb in the middle of the Overlook, ready to go off as soon as Jack allows. It is the physical manifestation of Jack's temper, a potentially fatal flaw that will kill anyone in striking distance - if Jack doesn't regularly keep it in check.

The Boiler Room itself reminds me of Freddy Krueger’s hellish home. There’s something so haunting about Jack finding the scrapbooks down in the boiler room, as if horrible memories are literal fuel for the hotel’s fire. It's a little on the nose, but I still found it terrifying.

Boomtown

Another major omission from Kubrick’s film is the explosion of the Overlook Hotel. This is the culmination of the boiler plot. While it is certainly a dynamic image, I don't think it is a particularly unique one. When I first started working in the film industry, I asked a producer, “What does everyone get tired of reading in scripts?” And he said, “Exploding houses.” It’s a filmic trope that’s been around since the silent era. So, I can understand why Kubrick wanted to rewrite it, taking the rest of the boiler plot with it.

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

The photos that you see above were not taken behind-the-scenes of The Shining. They are from my own childhood, taken by my father in the powdery winters of Wisconsin. Where I played as a child. Where we vacationed in the snow. So, when I watch The Shining, it’s as if I’ve lived there.

As if I’ve always lived there.

Tobe Hooper's Dark Vacation to "Salem's Lot"

I did it. I finally tackled Salem's Lot. I can't think of another popular fiction property that I've known about for so long and yet…avoided reading. And Salem’s Lot isn't the only Stephen King book I've neglected. Read my mea culpa here.

After finishing my dark vacation to the Lot, I decided to remedy another ill. I'd never seen Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of Salem’s Lot. I’d seen Dane Cook movies, but no Salem’s Lot. Disgusting, right?

(PS: Dane Cook’s been cast in American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel. It could work. Cook was actually great in Dan in Real Life)

So, why should I watch Salem’s Lot? Because it’s not just based on a Stephen King book; it was directed by Tobe Hooper.

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

Hooper is a legend in horror cinema. In the early 1970s, he rewrote horror history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a brutal and visceral film that gutpunched the sensibilities of 1970s moviegoers - and sixteen-year-old me. It now stands alongside Psycho, Halloween and The Exorcist as one of the most original films of all time. And I don’t have to mention Poltergeist, The Funhouse, Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. The dude has made his mark, and he did it even before he directed this film.

So, it’s required viewing. For me. For you. For everyone.

(Beware Ye, of spoilers below)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

The ’79 adaptation of Salem's Lot differs significantly from King’s novel. Even with a runtime of more than three hours, characters had to be combined and plot details rearrange. Some of the books most memorable scenes have been greatly condensed, sanitized for television, or omitted completely. And you have to expect that when the source material is as sprawling and detailed as this.

Although the movie is greatly constrained by its budget and the demands of 1970s broadcast television, it still worked for me to a great extent. The story’s roots as a small-town soap opera are evident (King was reportedly inspired by a super successful novel and tv series called Peyton Place), but when the film’s horror works, it really works.

What Worked for Me

You can fly, You can fly, You can fly

And you can’t beat Ralphie Glick floating up to scratch on his brother’s window. It’s a scene that’s haunted many childhoods. Even though I’ve seen the image before, floating around on the internet, it was still effective. Hooper draws out the scene, allowing you to really look at the kid, and it’s terrifying. It was clearly shot on a stage, and there’s minimal set decorations, but that lends to the scene’s effectiveness. There are no distractions. The audience is drawn into the dream-like visage as if we, too, are being bewitched by the vampire.

"Scratch, scratch"

"Scratch, scratch"

The Make-Up Design of Barlow

Kurt Barlow is transformed from a smooth, elegant, European gentleman into an outright monster. Though the look is clearly inspired by Nosferatu’s design, Barlow’s glowing eyes, spiked rabbit teeth and aging makeup really differentiate this vampire as something iconic in its own right.

The way Barlow operates in the movie is very different than in the novel. Hooper is definitely painting in broader strokes than King, and I don't blame him. Even though the runtime of Salem's Lot is over three hours, the space Hooper has to work within pales in comparison to the many pages King had. It makes sense that Hooper would have to condense, simplify and magnify certain aspects of the novel. And the most dramatic simplification was Barlow. Hooper took away his power to speak, which was used in the novel to great effect to seduce and psychologically capture victims. Now Straker speaks for Barlow, which is a perfectly fine adjustment to make. If you have the right actor as Straker.

Bonnie Bedelia

Susan Norton isn’t given much to work with in the novel. She’s the love interest of our leading man, Ben Mears. I didn’t get enough time with her to really care about her. She’s turned into a vampire pretty early, staked, and her body disposed of - all in a way that felt so unfinished, I expected her to return in some capacity at the novel’s conclusion.

Casting Bonnie Bedelia as Sue was a great decision. She has the accessible beauty of a small town girl. Her performance is so gentle and sweet. It’s easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her. And Hooper really improves Sue’s character arc. It was brilliant to bring her back at the end for one final shot at seducing Ben Mears, only to have him stake her brutally in the heart. It’s a great stinger. I’m not sure Sue would have worked had a lesser actress been cast. It’s easy to see why she would later become Ms. John McClain in Die Hard.

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

What Didn’t Work for Me

Straker
James Mason was a fine actor. The man earned three Oscar nominations and also appeared in one of my favorite films, North by Northwest. But I think he was miscast as Straker.

In King’s novel, Straker arrives as a scary, ominous presence that portends the many horrors to come. His dialogue is some of the most compelling, and I found him even more terrifying than Barlow. Those early scenes between Straker and Crockett are mesmerizing.

Although Mason gives the role his all, he comes off as prissy and aloof. He doesn't portray the strong, stiff-backed and short-tongued Straker of the novel. This is even more problematic when you consider the major changes to Barlow. Rather than the dapper, quiet, bald gentleman that we find on the page, Hooper’s Barlow is a silent monster. And it is Mason who must speak for him. The result is that the misplaced performance of one actor is multiplied by two.

Sorry, buddy.

Sorry, buddy.

Hutch’s Mad Game
Ben Mears, played by Starsky & Hutch star David Soul, finds Sue reading his book in the park. And proceeds to creep on her with some of the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this scene made much more sense in the ‘70s, when David Soul was motorcycling through the hearts of every woman in America. But now it’s just bad. I did laugh at this scene. So, there’s that.

There’s also another television miniseries adaptation of Salem’s Lot, done for TNT in 2004. That version stars Rob Lowe as Ben Mears, Rutger Hauer as Barlow and Donald Sutherland as Straker. Might be worth a watch, but first I’ve got to time-travel back in time to 2004 to find it.

Next Week: The Shining. The book.

Why "Get Out" was Successful

Daniel Kaluuya: killing it

Daniel Kaluuya: killing it

Rumors about films in production entertain me. I’m not talking about the official Empire magazine previews, complete with photos perfected by marketing experts and approved by studio execs. I’m talking about the stuff that floats around before that: the pinch-sized summaries you hear on set. The sort that grips and PAs tell you at crafty, that magical place filled with coffee and tea and fruit and enough ammo to load up a PB&J between setups. The kind of rumor you received via text from a location manager looking for a rundown house, or an actor who’s just auditioned for a role. Before marketing pros get their hands on the finished film, unofficial sluglines convey what people think the movie will be. And often, the people telling you what they think haven’t actually read the script. They’re telling you what they’ve heard.

No one I spoke with knew what Get Out would be.

Last year, I heard Jordan Peele was in New Orleans filming a movie. I heard it was a comedy. Peele’s bread and butter has long been laughs, so it made sense that he would stay in his wheelhouse for his directorial debut. I heard it was “comedy/horror” and “a comedy with horror in it.” And of course, “something new.” Most didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Many people who work on a film never read the script.

Even those who read Get Out probably didn’t know what it would be.

In their final form, films often end up being very different from what was originally on the page. Things, major and minor, often change. Things often must change: for reasons creative, budgetary and beyond. Making a film is terrifically difficult even under the best circumstances. And when a great film is made by agile men and women, applying their craft under great duress, sometimes they don’t find out about how great it is until you do. They go out on a Friday night like everyone else.

So what is Get Out?

Betty Gabriel: also killing it

Betty Gabriel: also killing it

It’s a freaking horror film! It’s a tense, deceptively small tale that pries open the mind with smart scares. It’s brilliant. Many media outlets have focused on the film’s humor and the social commentary inherent in its premise, but in its essence, Get Out is a horror film through and through. And that is at the core of why audiences and critics have found it so satisfying.

Horror sells. And it always has. From the penny dreadfuls to Stephen King, from The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity, macabre makes money. There’s just something about scares that’s universal. The best scares tap into universal fears, even when seen through the portal of a person’s truly unique experience. And while no genre guarantees financial success, horror does offer an indemnity that other sections of the bookstore and Blockbuster (R.I.P) don’t. Like flood insurance, the horror genre offers financial safety in the event of disaster. And that umbrella gives the craftsman room to smuggle in other stuff: philosophy, religion, politics, lies, truth. The Great Ideas are as at home within horror as microcosmic personal experiences.

With Get Out, Jordan Peele and his team have made brilliant use of the horror genre in just this way. By knitting social commentary into the very fabric of a horror premise, they have made Get Out an outstanding success: a fun, smart, scary movie that’s profitable. That last part’s important: because it’s profitable, Jordan Peele will get to make another movie. And because Get Out is a $5 million dollar movie that has made over $155 million dollars to date, his next movie can be pretty much anything he wants it to be.

"This guy gets it." - Jordan Peele

"This guy gets it." - Jordan Peele

And why was it successful? Because it’s a good horror film. Sure, there are laughs. Sure, there’s enough material about society’s real-life subtext to fill twenty NPR interviews. But those are not central to its success.

Get Out is a box office success because of three reasons:

  • It could be marketed as a horror film.
  • It IS a horror film! Those fantastic trailers weren’t selling a false bill of goods. Audience members got what they paid for, plus a little extra.
  • It’s actually a good movie. While the horror genre provides some insurance, you still have to make a good movie. I think we’re firmly in an era where Rotten Tomatoes matters, and no movie is truly review-proof. So, do the work in development. It’s worth it.

And why was it a good movie? Primarily because of two reasons:

  • A passionate and talented filmmaker with a unique voice, Jordan Peele, made it.
  • That filmmaker’s voice was supported by producers and hundreds of craftspeople from development through distribution.
"More tea, plz." Daniel Kaluuya

"More tea, plz." Daniel Kaluuya

I think there are some important takeaways here for creators. Art house cinema and elitist literature are not the only containers capable of holding thoughtful content. Even greats like Dickens worked within the popular medium of their time, shaping stories to the form that would reach the widest audience. If working within a genre - one I’ve always loved anyway - helps to reach a wider audience, that’s great.

Every artist has to eat. If all I need to do is drench my musings about time and eternity in blood and guts, so be it.

- Micah

I Wanted to See The Babadook

Movie recommendations need to be tailored. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it's not for everyone. And it's definitely not for my mother. Some movies I take under my wing and recommend to everyone. They are often independent movies that are diamonds in the rough. I become a maven for these films because A) they're great, B) they don't have the marketing dollars to find a wide audience, and C) I love describing them. I love honing my pitch to friends and family. And random people at coffee shops. And Radio Shack.

Just kidding, no one goes to Radio Shack anymore. My 2014 maven movie was The Babadook, a true return to Hitchcock horror. It's about a single mother and her son, both of whom are plagued by the violent death of her husband. The son, Samuel, creates trouble at school and at play, and he fears a monster is lurking in their house. It's a fear that the mother, Amelia, soon begins to share with him, as evidence builds of a sinister presence that surrounds her. I've recommended it to everyone. I'm recommending it to you.

You should see this film. I'm telling you that straight away. And because I'm about to get into some spoilers, proceed with caution, dear readers of internet nonsense. This movie is exponentially better if you watch it without knowing anything about it. Don't even watch the trailer, which is itself a filmic masterpiece. That's right: the trailer for this film alone is better than almost any horror or suspense film I have seen in theaters in a few years.

Spoilers, ahoy. (for The Babadook, The Exorcist and The Omen)

Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, is a master, using light and sound to terrify, all while honoring the story at the center of the film. While most recent horror films trade almost exclusively in jump scares, The Babadook earns everything. Even scenes that seem like mundane setup - such as meetings with school staff - are paid off in fulfilling fashion.

The anchors of the film are actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who play mother Amelia and son Samuel. Their performances are tremendous, among the best of last year, across all genres. Horror often gets short shrift come awards season (with the notable exception of The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs), but these performances were prime, easily worthy of Oscar nominations.

The first act sets up Samuel to be a troubled child, an homage to classics like The Omen, where a baby was the anti-Christ, and The Exorcist, where a girl is possessed by the devil himself. He looks strange and acts even stranger. Bizarre behavior at school and in social settings with other children not only misdirects us from the true source of trouble - his mother's depression - but it also aligns the audience with the mother. Who hasn't been around a troubled child and pitied their parents? Who can't sympathize with a single mother trying to recover from the tragic death of her husband? This is one of The Babadook's great achievements. It humanizes depression and calls out to us to help those in grief. Ultimately, Samuel is his mother's savior: he holds on to her humanity, even as unrequited grief threatens to kill them both.

By the end of the film, it's clear that the Babadook isn't some demon coming to haunt Samuel. The monster is grief itself, a seven-year-old beast that Amelia hasn't yet confronted. It doesn't possess her, like Reagan is actually possessed by evil in The Exorcist. It grew within her, over the course of seven years, until finally she chose to face it. And face it she does, with her son in her arms, she summons all of the strength in her and then some, screaming, "You are trespassing in my house!"

That moment is incredible, mother and child protecting one another, as the Babadook hides in black shadows. His face is hidden. Only his long fingered hands peeking out, and the faint outline of his unnaturally long arms. And after the confrontation, Amelia tucks the Bababook away in the basement, only to revisit grief when it was necessary and under appropriate conditions.

We barely see the Babadook. On my first viewing, I saw this as a strength of the film, a mature artistic choice that focused the attention on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, rather than the titular antagonist. It kept the emphasis on the story as an analogy for the struggle to deal with lingering grief, mental illness and other kinds of psychosis.

And yet, after a recent rewatch, I found myself wanting to see the Babadook. I wanted to see the beast. And I think it may have made for a better viewing experience. I think it could have been done without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the project. Think again of films like The Exorcist and The Omen. They, too, tease the audience with something wicked, which may this way come. But in those films, we saw the face of the devil. I mean that figuratively. What we saw was confirmation of the truth. The protagonists weren't crazy. They were normal people who were actually seeing something extraordinary, and the text of the film confirmed that.

In those films, the real danger was thinking it was not real. In The Exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) had encountered the demon Pazuzu before. Father Karras was the skeptic. He knew he was seeing something extraordinary, but believing in actual demonic possession was a belief too far. It isn't until Karras sees the demon leap from the possessed girl Regan into Father Merrin, promptly killing him, that Karras believes the demon is truly real. And we as the audience have to see it, too. We would have to see it in real life to believe it. We have to see it in the movie, too.

In The Omen, the boy is the antagonist, along with those the devil sends to protect him. The bridge we must cross is believing the boy is actually the anti-Christ. It's the same belief that Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) must come to hold. There are certainly incidents that prepare him to believe. He finds out his son died in childbirth, and was swapped for an orphan. But it isn't until he travels to the grave of Damien's birth mother, and finds a jackal buried there, that he believes. The fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the anti-Christ would be born of a beast. We actually get to see the jackal, and we join Thorn in his belief.

If we could have seen more of the Bababook, what would we have seen? Perhaps it would have been the face of Amelia, or a pitiful cypher of her healthier self. It could have been the face of her husband, a form the beast takes earlier in the film. Or it could have been a new face, one of such evil it would have captured culture in a bigger way than The Babadook ultimately has. Every special effects makeup artist in the business would salivate over such an opportunity. And I think it would have made the emotional climax of the film more satisfying. When the Babadook's arms slip back into the darkness, it doesn't feel like a defeat, or even a knockdown punch. It feels like the Babadook will explode again onto the screen, pushing the audience to its emotional limits and personifying the titular evil. That never happens.

Within the film, showing the beast at the very end would have made great sense. In seeing the beast, Amelia would finally have confirmation that she is not the Babadook. She isn't the evil. She and her grief are not identical. She may not be able to rid herself entirely of it, but she is not identical to it. It is an "other," a thing that can be observed. And we the audience would have also observed it with her.

The Babadook is a beautiful, terrifying and excellent film. I'm still incredibly impressed with Jennifer Kent's direction, and she should be offered every high profile directing gig in Hollywood. But I still wanted to see The Bababook. Now, I will have to live with a hundred terrible fan interpretations every Halloween instead.

- Micah