horror movies

It Follows

mv5bmmu0mjblyzytzwy0mc00mjlilwi3zmutmzhlzdvjmwvmywy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_If Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby set the tone for the “psychological horror” film back in the late 1960s, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is the culmination of nearly 50 years of psychological terror along with so many other important tropes of the genre mixed in.

And speaking of tropes, we open with a mainstay–the opening death scene, which takes place in a Detroit suburb.  A girl named Annie flees her house and seems to be followed by … something.   She makes it as far as the beach but can’t escape whatever is terrorizing her, as her dead body is found the next day.

We then meet Jay, our college student protagonist who has a new boyfriend named Hugh.  As she’s out on a date with him, he keeps seeing a mysterious little girl that nobody else can see.  Later on in the film, they have sex and Hugh chloroforms her.  When she wakes up, he’s tied her to a chair and tells her that he passed some sort of curse onto her–she will be followed by an entity that only she can see and it won’t stop until it kills her (where it will then go after the last person it pursued, which happened to be Hugh).

The rest of the film is basically the story of Jay and her friends trying to avoid, escape, and then ultimately fight back against whatever is following her, although we never actually know what it is except that it takes the form of various disheveled-looking people, including friends and family members.  And unlike, say, Final Destination, where the characters were being killed off in increasingly ridiculous and cinematically staged ways by a “death” entity, It Follows chooses to have fun with the “audience mindscrew” by offering very few jump scares (thank God) in favor of creating a constant feeling of uneasiness.  Like Rosemary’s Baby, the film has a sense of real place (although Mitchell keeps the time period of its setting deliberately ambiguous) and while this does follow the same pattern of “photogenic white kids in the suburbs getting offed after getting off” of your average slasher flick, it’s quite aware of that.

In fact, Mitchell plays with that knowingly–after all, the entire premise of the movie is the Scream-established rule that having sex in a slasher movie means you’re going to die.  And he sends his characters into the seedier parts of Detroit to either try to avoid the entity (although we know they can’t do that) or confront it directly, hitting upon what Polanski does in Rosemary’s Baby by pointing out that our homes are not safe and perhaps we need to second-guess their comfort.  Furthermore, he avoids the “come at me bro” self-aware final confrontation of late-1990s flicks like Final Destination and has his characters make stupid mistakes and confront the entity in a way that feels at best like a desperate attempt to save Jay’s life (and at worst a trap Fred would try to spring on Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated) instead of the machinations of a protagonist who is too smart for the film in which he’s been placed and is therefore deconstructing the rules in order to win.

It Follows is a fun horror movie.  You sympathize with its main character because she spends the film going more and more crazy while her friends can’t seem to figure out how to help her or what is even going on (that is, until they start getting killed) and the ending doesn’t go for a cheap twist or any big reveal that spoils re-watches; in fact, we never get “origin” or even the true identity of the entity and that’s fine.  Plus, the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous and you leave wondering if everything is okay.

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Rosemary’s Baby

rosemarys_baby_posterWhile I decided to dedicate most of the entries and episodes I’ll be putting out in October to horror films, I will be the first to admit that when it comes to actually watching horror movies, I am not very well-versed in them and I, in fact, have either not watched some of the “required horror classics” in a number of years or at all.  Rosemary’s Baby is a film that falls into the latter category.  I had obviously heard of the film, knew of its premise, and had even seen clips of it on cable specials about horror movies, but until recently had never seen it.

Part of the reason for that, I will readily admit, is that I have a hard time separating Roman Polanski’s creative output from his personal life (this is also why I have never seen a Woody Allen movie, btw) and with the exception of his adaptation of Macbeth have never seen any of his films.  But since Rosemary’s Baby was available for streaming on Hulu, I set that aside.  And while I found myself perfectly able to set aside any personal feelings I have against the film’s director, I didn’t find myself particularly scared.  In fact, dare I say it, I was slightly bored.

That’s not to say that Rosemary’s Baby is a boring or bad movie.  It’s not.  Looking at it from the “I look Intro to Film in College” lens that I can use every once in a while (because … well, I took Intro to Film in college), I can see why the film is so highly regarded.  At the same time, I wonder if that since it’s so well-regarded and has become so ingrained in our popular culture, it has become a victim of its own success.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young couple who have just moved into a very nice apartment building in New York City.  Rosemary is a housewife to Guy’s struggling actor and while their ability to afford said apartment is almost sitcom-like, we set aside our disbelief because what matters is that they’re in the apartment and she’s a young woman whose well-being becomes the focus of their neighbors, Minnie Castavet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her role).  This friendship with the neighbors is fortuitous for Guy, who quickly becomes successful, and he suggests that he and Rosemary try to have a baby.  On the night that they’re going to try and conceive, Minnie makes chocolate mousse for the couple, which Rosemary throws away after a few bites due to a chalky aftertaste.  That aftertaste was some sort of drug and that night, she has what seems to be an odd dream where she is raped by a demonic presence.

Of course, that dream was real and anyone who has heard of the movie knows that was no dream and Rosemary is carrying the child of Satan.  Her pregnancy progresses in a way that’s freakishly unusual in places (her craving raw meat at one point and having to drink what looks like a noxious smoothie at others) and after the baby is finally born, there’s the very famous scene where she sees her baby and screams, “What have you done to him?  What have you done to his eyes?  YOU MANIACS!” (screaming “You Maniacs!” seemed to be a popular outburst in late 1960s cinema) before being coaxed into rocking the cradle.

I said that I was bored while watching the movie even though I see why it’s an important film for the genre and I think part of that comes from more or less knowing the ending.  Unlike The Exorcist (which I find much more entertaining and scarier), Rosemary’s Baby kind of relies on its big reveal at its end because while Polanski hints that there’s something really nefarious going on and in the back of your mind you think it might be related to Satan, the line “Satan is his father” is spoken only at the end.  So if you know what is already coming, you wind up spending a decent portion of the movie waiting for the film to get on with it.

If you, however, go into Rosemary’s Baby knowing what’s going to happen, you spend your time looking at how the movie gets its story across and do appreciate it for its impact on the horror genre as well as its satirical elements.  Polanski does an excellent job of keeping the movie’s tension just below the surface–as Rosemary’s pregnancy progresses, we’re constantly aware that something isn’t quite right and the seemingly nice Castavets are not all that they seem (and Ruth Gordon’s Oscar was well-deserved) and he doesn’t go too over the top in the film’s ending.  Likewise, in an age where every decision about pregnancy and parenthood among the privilege of the white middle/upper-middle class, the “home remedies” (weird herbal roots and drinks) and specialized doctors that the Castevets provide our protagonist are almost prescient in the way that they satirize the obsession with “natural,” “organic,” and “non-commercial” pregnancy and infant lifestyles.  Said satire works, in fact, because the movie probably isn’t trying to be satirical (and if it were done in that vein today, there would be too much winking at the screen).

So, the verdict here?  Despite my criticisms, Rosemary’s Baby is worth seeing.  Polanski does know how to build tension and have the viewer share in his protagonist’s confusion and eventual despair; plus, he never actually shows us her baby, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks of what he actually looks like (something that will come up later this month in another movie).  It also deserves its place in film history as the start of a horror subgenre, one that would ramp up in the 1970s with The Omen, and gives us one of the first real movies where the horror that’s taking place is within the safety of our homes (which the aforementioned Exorcist and other movies such as The Amityville Horror and even Halloween would also make their mark) instead of a realm of the supernatural.

It’s Shocktober!

Since it’s October, I’m taking a quick dip in the horror pool.  Over the course of the next four weeks, you’ll find reviews for a few horror movies as well as an episode of the podcast guest-starring Michael Bailey about one of the most popular and influential horror films of 1999.

Now, I should say that I’m not a horror aficionado.  I’ve seen my fair share of slasher and zombie flicks, but for the most part, I steer clear of the genre, choosing to watch the occasional horror movie trailer on IMDb and then read those films’ synopses on Wikipedia.  It’s not that I don’t like horror films–in fact, with the exception of the “torture” movies like Saw, I’ll try any horrror movie–it’s just that if I have a choice, I’ll often try another genre first.

Still, this is the month for horror and I do like to spend at least one night in October watching a scary movie, so I’ve lined up a few.

And to get us started, I have these two promos from WPIX-11 that aired throughout the early 1990s.  During this month, channel 11 would spend its nights airing science fiction and horror movies that it had stashed in its vault, some of which weren’t exactly scary (not sure how Star Trek: The Motion Picture made its way into the rotation) while others were fairly recent classics (The Lost Boys, Phantasm) or insanely shlocky B-movie fare (Leprechaun).  I rarely had the chance to sit through one of those movies, choosing to watch whatever sitcom I was addicted to at the time or maybe even the baseball playoffcs, but the promos ran endlessly throughout the afternoons when my sister and I would be watching our daily dose of Charles in ChargeSaved By the Bell, and Cheers.

So presented mostly without commentary are two Shocktober promos as a way to take us into a month of what will hopefully be some frightful film reviews.

Horror in a Box (Portions NSFW)

The poster for 1981's "The Howling," which was one video box I could never stop staring at when I was a kid.

I am not a horror movie guy.  Sure, I’ll sit down and watch stuff like Halloween or Night of the Living Dead on occasion, but I am not the type to line up outside of a movie theater on the opening night of the latest Saw movie because I am promised that there are going to be 50% more genital mutilations.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by horror films, especially those which are outside of the mainstream.

This fascination began at an early age, when Sayville’s Video Empire opened in 1984.  This wasn’t the first video store that my parents frequented–that distinction belongs to Video Village, which was located in a very small house-like building next to what was Chicken Delight but is now Hot Bagels on Montauk Highway in Sayville; and Video Zone, which was across from the Oakdale train station–and those video stores were pretty cramped establishements with very little to offer me except for repeated rentals of Superman: The Movie and video collections of Mickey Mouse cartoons which, if you waited long enough after the cartoons were over, featured a long and terrible trailer for Disney’s long and terrible sci-fi movie, The Black Hole.

Video Empire, as I’ve mentioned before, quickly became my home video store after it opened because it was on the same side of Main Street/Montauk Highway as my parents’ house was, so that meant I didn’t have to worry about crossing it to get there on my bike; and it was pretty huge for a video store.  Now, it was nowhere near the size of a Blockbuster Video but for a mom and pop operation, it was pretty large.  The children’s section of the store was right as you came in, to the right, and if you kept walking toward the counter you found that the kiddie videos transitioned into the sci-fi/horror videos.  By this time in my life I had seen Star Wars a ton of times, so I would peruse the shelves hoping to find The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, both of which had just come out on video back in the mid-1980s and were highly sought after by Video Empire’s customers.

While perusing, my eyes would eventually land on the box for one of the many horror movies available.  These included your obvious classics, such as the Friday the 13th series (which at that point was up to Part IV, or The Final Chapter), the Halloween series (at the awful Season of the Witch), or something random like Psycho or Alien.  But they also included movies that probably didn’t make a lot of money at the box office and whose studios had decided to recoup whatever losses they had by making them readily available for the bourgeoning video rental market.  If there’s nothing else out, they have to rent something, right?  I mean, it’s a decent rationale.  Eventually, while my dad tried to figure out what new release action flick to rent and my sister looked for The Last Unicorn or some shit, I would pick up one of those boxes and turn them over, reading the description.

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