Scared Hitless – Oculus

Horror, like so many other genres, often pays homage to what has come before. Sometimes, that leads to a playful back-and-forth (look no further than Wes Craven and the Evil Dead series). Sometimes, that back-and-forth isn’t possible, because the creator of what came before is no longer alive to create. However, paying homage is a tricky prospoect, as it is far too easy to put together a ham-fisted piece, trying to give credit and respect to those who blazed the trail, only to turn out a property that sucks the life and soul out of an attempt to dovetail.

One of those creators who seems to be incredibly difficult to handle when a new project taps into his particular style of storytelling is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s style was so unique, and his stories tapped into the subconscious so frequently, that many attempts have been made, but it is the rare new creation that can actually carry some of the resonance. There’s a reason that the Cthulhu mythos is still carried forward, often through gaming properties; his world- building resonates still. And yet, far too often, filmed attempts to bring Lovecraft’s world to the screen have fallen flat. Movies seem to do a better job tackling a story in a Lovecraftian fashion, instead of directly reinterpreting his tales. This can lead to some surprises, such as with today’s movie.

Oculus

Via waytooindie.com
Did you hear that? Is it a surprised audience?

OCULUS

To be honest, this is a movie that I originally gave a pass to. The story of a killer mirror, starring a very Scottish actress trying to mask her natural accent, and produced by WWE Films. It all felt like the set-up to another See No Evil, and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing which wrestler was going to be shoehorned into this movie. Then I discovered that WWE Films was only involved after the film was completed. I was still struggling with the killer mirror thing, fearing Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a schlocky, sub-B horror movie as much as the next guy. I just wasn’t sure that a killer mirror was going to bring enough enjoyment in an “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way.

I finally took in a viewing of Oculus recently, and I am frustrated that it took me so long to actually give it a shot. What seemed, based on trailers, to be a simple “killer mirror” story turned out to be something much more; a Lovecraftian tale in the style of his somewhat more down-to-earth variety. This isn’t another attempt at bringing the Cthulhu mythos to the public’s consciousness. No, instead Oculus focuses its story in the manner of Lovecraft’s science tales. The tales where the alien presence is studied by someone who seems to be the only one who truly understand the danger it presents, despite everyone else denying that truth. And the tales where that very act of research brings about the ultimate downfall.

Oculus tells us the story of Kaylie (Karen Gillan as an adult, Annalise Basso as a child) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites as an adult, Garrett Ryan as a child), who survived a terrifying experience as children, watching their parents slowly driven beyond the brink of insanity, leading to the death of both parents. Now, Kaylie has attained the antique mirror, the Lasser Glass, believing that it is responsible for not only what happened to their parents, but to many previous owners. The movie presents both timelines, and does so rather deftly, playing with the laws of reality as it sees fit to present its strongest story. And, while there are times where Gillan’s accent slips, and Thwaites is somewhat hit-or-miss in his performance, the movie is able to remain engaging.

Over the course of the movie’s running time, we witness the slow past disintegration of the parents, played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, while the present tale mirrors that collapse in a much more accelerated fashion. Kaylie has an entire research plan set out, and she wants to scientifically prove that the mirror is not only evil, but also sentient and looking to protect itself at all costs. She has cameras and other electronic devices set up throughout the house, many of them failsafes triggered only to come to life when something else inevitably fails. She has a strict schedule that she intends to follow, aided by numerous alarm clocks. She even sets up an anchor attached to a swinging arm, as a sort of dead man’s switch to try and ensure her own safety. After all, she figures that, if the mirror happens to cause her, or Tim’s death, they won’t be able to reset the timer, and it would lead to the mirror being shattered. It sets up an entire Chekov’s gun scenario, but that doesn’t take away from the matter in which the “gun” is utilized.

In some of the more grounded Lovecraftian tales, the act of research is what leads to the downfall of the protagonist. They insist that they haven’t lost their mind, and another observer (family, friend, hired help) is brought along, trying to be the voice of reason. However, one thing that Lovecraft carried forward in these tales is the dread of the alien item, and the power that it could actually contain. His stories didn’t necessarily set up a clear delineation between insanity and an outside evil; in fact, they often came hand-in-hand, and that’s another thing that Oculus succeeds at. The reality of the modern tale is brought into question, and, while Kaylie believes that she has methods and tricks to try and discern the truth, her mind is lying to her almost as much as the mirror is. Tim has to struggle not only with the current events, but with past memories long buried and denied. And that’s all before the timelines start to blur together, a natural extension of either the descent into madness experienced by Kaylie and Tim, or a supernatural display of the mirror’s powers. And, in true Lovecraftian fashion, Oculus makes it clear that, while the protagonists definitely lost their minds, the “other” presence was also very very real, and will continue to be a threat to others moving forward.

At the end of the day, Oculus is more than just a movie about a killer mirror, and the two people who ran afoul of its powers not once, but twice. It is also a tale about how our past experiences shape our present, and how, perhaps, some things should remain unknowable. Because of what they experienced as children, Kaylie obsessed over the mirror, striving to get it back (or was the mirror wanting to get back those that had once escaped). Tim seems to have moved on, but he gets dragged back in by his sister, only to relive so very closely the original events. The movie points to a need to understand our surroundings, while also cautioning against pushing too hard to get the answers you seek. The timelines mirror each other intentionally, to remind us about the ever-repeating nature of history, both personal and on larger scales.

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Scared Hitless: The Witch

Horror, as a genre, is one that isn’t afraid of pushing buttons, and challenging the norms. Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a thread of female empowerment going through horror films, and it’s been refreshing to see. This isn’t talking about the “final girl” concept. No, this is talking about women who are able to be the agent of what is happening around them, and come out stronger at the end because of it. Look at films like It Follows, The Babadook, and, yes, Ex Machina. All of these films feature women that, while they might not necessarily be the root cause of the events of the story, they are able to, through their own strength, and ingenuity, change the rules of the game around them. It Follows features Jay taking control of her own sexuality, and the choices and consequences of doing so, without reservation. The Babadook looks at depression, and how the damage that it can cause, but again, it is predominantly Amelia who is the agent of change for her family. With regards to Ex Machina, Ava outwits both of the men who believe they are testing her, and holds her entire fate squarely in her robotic hands. And that’s a small list.

This isn’t to say that horror in general has glowing views of women. Far from it. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to deny that there is some rampant misogyny running through the genre, but the fact that there is some strong women stepping forward in horror, and in roles that are more than simply a “final girl” role, is a great thing. It shows that the world is turning, and that alone is a pretty good feeling, even when it comes with a certain level of dread.

Of course, when trying to bring about change, you run a risk of alienating people. This is something that has an even higher risk within horror, due to the incredibly subjective relationship that the viewer has with the subject matter. One person’s terrifying could very easily be another person’s laughable. Even things that are considered to be universal fears have plenty of people who don’t find them disturbing in the slightest. That subjectivity leads to people having vastly different experiences, and things that some people love, others will outright hate.

That brings me around to the movie that I want to talk about, and one that is out in theaters right now. I am, of course, talking about The Witch, a film that I actually described as being “relentlessly uncomfortable”. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience; I definitely did (at least, I did most of the way through the film). But the film certainly hit me with just an overall feeling of discomfort from the very start, and that discomfort, while wondering what was coming next, kept me involved. With that said, let’s look at The Witch.

TheWitch

Via comingsoon.net

THE WITCH

The Witch bills itself as “A New England Folktale”, and that descriptor couldn’t be more apt. Taking place in the 1600s, and following a Puritan family who has been exiled from their village, the film doesn’t deal with overarching moral dilemmas. Instead, it reverts back to the simpler, archetypal stories of yesteryear. What causes all of the trouble for William and his family? In the basic folktale style, it is simply leaving the safety of their people. Striking out on their own. Entering the woods. Simple, primal fears, and ones that definitely would have resonated with the time frame the film was set in.

But is it really just that simple? Of course not. Layered over the top of the basic fears is an admonition of excessive pride, a tale of a mother feeling threatened by her daughter blossoming, and a family who have become so wrapped up in their beliefs that they aren’t seeing the reality around them. Setting the film in Puritan times helps ground it, and, while it may take some viewers a little time to completely wrap their heads around the (remarkably authentic) language and dialect, the performances all around by the cast, laying bare who these people are, carry an impact. The pacing is deliberate, and, as I mentioned above, personally it was unrelenting in how uncomfortable the film was. Each moment built on the last, not necessarily in intensity, but with very few opportunity given to pull back on the tension. I have seen some people describe the film as being “boring”, but I think a lot of that really is tied into how quickly and easily you get sucked in by the tension-building, and how uncomfortable the moments make you.

Very quickly, the film presents you with the titular witch, after the family baby, Samuel, is abducted while in the immediate care of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Needless to say, that doesn’t end well, and leads directly to one of the few scenes that would fit well into many other horror films, as well. From that point on, the film doesn’t really let up. We’re met with the sounds of Katherine (the mother, in a strong portrayal by Kate Dickie) praying frantically, only to learn that this has been going on practically unabated for days. William (Ralph Ineson) proceeds to, through his own hubris, keep making what he believes are the correct choices to save his failing farm, while also soothing his family, but the only thing he is good at seems to be chopping wood. It is his pride that set his family down the path that they’re presently on, and his pride keeps them from being able to see the writing ont he wall until it is too late. Throw into that mix the leering gaze of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the plot to remove Thomasin from the family home, and the refusal to believe their reality, and you’ve got a film that is either a make-it or break-it concept.

I mentioned above how horror has been starting to present more tales that revolve around female empowerment, and I truly believe that The Witch is a film that fits into that category. William is a man who is entirely ruled by his wife, and his fear of what she would think of him. Over the course of the film, we see him shying away from things that would anger her, or at least the admission thereof. In fact, when given the chance, he is more than willing to deflect blame towards Thomasin, who is just entering womanhood, and is clearly a threat in the eyes of Katherine. However, while Katherine is the silent power in the household, it is Thomasin who truly goes on the journey towards greater strength throughout the film. She could be viewed as a “final girl”, except that completely ignores her own autonomy in each situation. She gets accused by her family of being the witch causing them problems, but only because she had pulled that particular tool out of her bag in an earlier attempt to get her twin siblings to behave. She is adamant that the twins, later, are the ones who are communing with the devil, and it leads directly to the penultimate night. It should also be noted that, in many of the situations, had the family listened to Thomasin, instead of being fearful or dismissive of the young woman, things would have probably gone better for them all. And, the final scenes show that Thomasin’s journey is complete, although her expression presents a mixture of joy and trepidation.

Make no mistake, this is Thomasin’s story, with the rest of the family as players in the cast. We don’t actually know the root cause of the exile, but we do know that William’s hubris is what eventually forced the hand of the village elders. It isn’t too much of a stretch, however, to look upon the later events of the film, and the contrary nature of Thomasin with regards to the rest of her family, the think that perhaps it was something she said or did that started it all. Pretty much the only member of the family who Thomasin seems to feel any real kinship with is Caleb, and even that is becoming strained as he is becoming more like William with every failed endeavor.

The Witch presents its tale simply, with little flourish of color or variation, but it doesn’t need it. The color palate is somber, foreboding, helping to convey the emotions the family must be feeling knowing that their farm is failing, and that they may have to return humbled before those who exiled them. The darker color scheme also serves as a reminder that there is no guarantee that even that would work. What splashes of color do pop up almost serve as a sort of wish fulfillment, especially notable in Caleb’s run-in with the witch. This, along with the deliberate pace and strong performances, helped ground a clearly supernatural tale in a level of realism.

That is, all up until the very end of the film. Yes, I’m going to talk about the end of the film, and my thoughts. This is your warning to get away before I say too much.

Okay. Seriously, this is your warning.

Good? Good. The ending of The Witch took, what I felt at the time, to be a strong left turn. A movie that had clearly kept at least one foot dangling in a realistic creation suddenly abandoned that entirely. Setting a film about witchcraft in 17th century America, there are two clearly defined paths to travel, and a few more complicated twists and turns to find something newer. One route is to confirm that yes, witchcraft is real, the devil has had his hand in everything from the beginning, and everything supernatural happened exactly as shown. The other route is to explain away everything as an ergot-induced hallucination, and that all of the “magic” acts were conducted by the victims themselves. Honestly, I was glad that The Witch did not take the second route, and even the conversation with Black Philip didn’t bother me. It was shortly thereafter, just before the end credits. Where the film had seemingly made it clear that there was only one witch terrorizing the family, we are confronted with an entire coven. That specifically is what bothered me. Not how the coven leaves the area. The sheer numbers. I honestly felt like the film would have been more powerful had they simply showed only one witch. I even thought initially that cutting to the end just prior to the final reveal would have been preferable, but that takes away the true moments of triumph at the end, and, without that, some of the film would have rang much more hollow.

All of that said, looking back, can I say that I recommend The Witch? That’s actually a much harder question to answer. For me, it is currently in line to be this year’s It Follows, a movie that resonated with me, and made me want to have more people see it so that I could pick their brains about it. By the same token, I definitely understand where people are left questioning if this film even qualifies as horror, even though I can’t imagine what other genre it could possibly belong to. I mention It Follows again for a specific reason. That was also a movie where audiences seemed to either greatly enjoy it, or find the entire thing trite, silly, and a waste of time. I feel that The Witch hits that same sort of dividing of audiences. If you’re interested, decide how much you want to know going in. And don’t expect it to be the next earth-shattering horror entry. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t going to be that for you, but expecting it to fulfill that promise sight unseen is setting it up for a monumental task, one that not even Black Philip could help it with.

Scared Hitless: Ex Machina

Horror has an interesting relationship with a lot of other genres, and those relationships are one of the things that keep drawing horror fans back. Whether it’s the notion of timing and delivery that separate horror from comedy, or the intensity that can keep horror and thriller apart, the way those different genres recognize a part of each other helps make them accessible, and keeps the new creations fresh. Even when old stories are resurrected, there is usually a different spin that can be applied, and that spin is sometimes informed by other genres.

Speaking as a parent, a story that resonates loudly with me is Frankenstein, as told by Mary Shelley. Far too many filmic adaptations of the story have missed the mark for one reason or another. At the core of the story, it is the story of a parent and a child, and the parent’s overall failing to be a parent that leads the child down the path that it follows, and those subtleties often seem to get glossed over. However, a recent attempt to breathe new life into Shelley’s story, whether conscious or not, also dabbles in the realm of science fiction, and asks the audience to think deeper. That film, of course, is

EX MACHINA

Via hollywoodreporter.com.

Via hollywoodreporter.com.

As stated above, Ex Machina is something of an update for the classic Frankenstein myth, in that it deals with a man and his creation, and the man’s overall lack of empathy towards what he has created. However, instead of wrapping the story in Victorian trappings, Ex Machina casts it into the present, or possibly the near future, and we’re given a surrogate through which to see how everything plays out.

The film opens with us meeting Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a programmer for what is clearly meant to be the in-universe version of Google. Caleb is the lucky winner of a lottery held by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and gets to spend an entire week living with his enigmatic employer. When Caleb arrives, he is immediately presented with a picture of Nathan as a man who, while clearly ridiculously wealthy and freakishly intelligent, his drive also leads to a hard-drinking lifestyle. In fact, Nathan admits to a hangover, which prompts Caleb to comment on what must have been a raging party, and his questioning is met with a deadpan response. It is clear that, while Nathan will at least be cordial with Caleb, he has expectations for his employee. Even from the opening scene, Ex Machina wastes little time establishing Nathan as a driven, brutal genius, but one who has sacrificed aspects of his own humanity in the pursuit of the next great discovery.

Shortly thereafter, we are presented with the crux of why Nathan was holding the lottery. Caleb is to be the human component in administering a Turing test. The computer on the other end is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that Caleb is introduced to almost immediately. Her identity as a robot is never disguised, which makes Caleb initially doubt the validity of the test, until Nathan points out that the best way to tell if she has true artificial intelligence would be for Caleb to relate to her, despite knowing the entire time of her robotic nature. This is the crux of the story, and presents a nice framework for the audience.

The film plays with the concept of artificial intelligence, and how we relate to our continually more computerized world through simple conversations between Caleb and Ava. It is these conversations where a real human connection can be felt, and they present a sharp contrast to the communication between Caleb and Nathan. Between Nathan and Ava, he is the one who seems to be trying harder to present a mask of humanity, and she is the one who seemingly embodies the more human characteristics one might expect. This is an obvious choice to make when discussing artificial intelligence, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. Caleb clearly needs that spark of humanity, and, while he tries to make a connection with Nathan and fails, his success doing so with Ava allow for not only the tests to continue, but for Ava’s plans to come to fruition.

Ex Machina is presented simply, with relatively sparse sets, and a small cast working in intimate settings. The starkness of the scene actually serves to heighten the opulence we’re meant to feel with regards to how Nathan lives. Instead of being bare, we are presented with a space that contains only what is meant to be contained there, and only items of the highest quality at that. This is exactly how Nathan lives his life, as only the best is allowed to grace his presence, and he doesn’t have a need for the cast-offs that came before. As a man driven to consistently improve on what he’s already done, this doesn’t bode well for any of his creations, and, with her intellect, Ava is aware of this.

That last part is a big element of why Ex Machina really does feel like a modern retelling of the Frankenstein story. Ava started out as a blank slate. She was created by a man driven to create life; life that could fool even the most perceptive. In the Frankenstein story, what drives the monster is the fact that it simply wanted to be loved, and it was denied. In Ex Machina, it does seem that Ava at first may have wanted the same thing, but that being denied by her creator, she drove herself towards a need to escape and experience. And, in true Frankenstein fashion, even when there is another who wants to give her what she’s asking for, Ava instead relies entirely upon herself, having been taught distrust and neglect at the hands of her creator.

But was Nathan telling the truth when he said that her “rat in a maze” actions were actually part of his initial programming, and that the real test was not to see whether she could pass as human, but if she could seduce her way out? Upon initial viewing, it felt like Nathan’s story changed haphazardly, but, with further reflection, it’s clear that he’s crafted almost everything that happens. Nathan exerts a great deal of control (it isn’t until events happen he didn’t foresee that the entire plan fell apart, for him), and he’s parceling out knowledge to Caleb as he sees fit, and as he feels it necessary to further the test. Is he just really good at looking at the different angles as they are presented to him, or was the entire week laid out in advance, and, as part of his drive to create artificial intelligence, did Nathan study humanity enough to predict exactly what Caleb would do every step of the way?

Ex Machina deals with the (current) fiction of creating artificial intelligence with both a sense of wonder and dread, and that helps ground the film. Would a try AI connect with humans, or replace us? Would it help us to enrich our own lives, or would we be nothing more than intellectual ants to it? Again, much like in the Frankenstein story, the unachievable science is both a thing to behold, and a thing to fear.

Ex Machina, as a film, works for me because of the steady pace, the strong performances of the cast, and the deliberate setting. As a story, however, I feel Ex Machina resonate even more strongly. It calls forward all of my hopes and fears as a parent, in much the same way that Mary Shelley has done as well. It makes me hope that I am able to take this new life and fill it with so much joy, wonder, and deep love, giving what that life needs to sustain itself and be happy. It also presents a bleak picture of what the world can be like for those who never receive what they need, and the place they end up having to carve out for themselves.

Scared Hitless: The Babadook

Sometimes, horror is great for the initial shock value. You’re looking for something that will scare you RIGHT. NOW. but you want to be able to rest easy after it’s done, or at least the next night. Other times, the mark of strong horror is how a movie will stay with you, plucking at the strings of your brain long after the final credits have rolled. Apparently, it is that variety of horror that I’m currently kicking on, with the recent movies I’ve consumed.

Around a month ago, I took in the movie It Follows, and proceeded to spout piles of words trying to capture my thoughts on it. Thankfully, I never once assumed that writing a blog post would be the end of my musings, as It Follows jumps into my brain every once in a while (generally, when I’m relatively alone). The same goes for another movie that I took in recently; an Australian piece entitled

via i09

via io9

THE BABADOOK

In some ways, The Babadook holds a certain level of kinship with It Follows. Both movies feature strong women in lead roles. Both make it clear that these women are victims of whatever terrible curse is coming for them. And, of course, both are definitely part of a style of horror where the strongest scares lurk in the back of the viewer’s mind. However, even with all of those similarities, the two movies could not be more different.

In The Babadook, we are introduced to Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a tight-knit little family struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives. The movie actually kicks off with a nightmare of Amelia’s, which is also a flashback to the day Samuel was born. Amelia is a single mother, trying desperately to make life worthwhile for her son. Samuel, for his part, is a child who is plagued by imaginary monsters, so much so that he builds complicated weapons to fend them off. Lurking throughout for both Samuel and Amelia is the memory, or at least imagery, of Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), Sam’s father who died in a car crash bringing the pregnant Amelia to the hospital.

The events of the film are set in the days before Sam’s birthday, and Oskar hangs over the film like a shroud. Much of the setting is dingy, with muted colors. Samuel has been acting out, making it harder for him to form real connections with other children. Amelia, troubled with insomnia of her own and Sam’s night terrors, is bedraggled, trying to balance her life as an elder-care nurse and a single mother. The only person who seems to constantly care for Sam and Amelia is their neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), but Amelia is unwilling to burden the older woman more than necessary. In short, their life is by no means idyllic.

That imperfect life starts to take a darker turn when Samuel requests that Amelia read a specific book for his bedtime. That book is Mr. Babadook, a dark and twisted pop-up book that is clearly not meant for children. In the book, the characters are made aware of “Mr. Babadook”, and simply being aware of the entity gives him free rein to torment his victim. Clearly troubled by the story, Amelia stops reading it and hides it, hoping that Samuel will forget it ever existed. From that point forward, the two are plagued by supernatural occurrences, and even efforts to destroy the book are thwarted. For Amelia and Samuel, “Mr. Babadook” has become real, and he is coming for them.

It would seem on the surface that The Babadook is a story about a supernatural demon coming to kill off innocent victims, and, while parts of the film are certainly presented in that fashion, that isn’t at all the main point of the film. This is truly displayed at the end of the movie, when the drab colors are replaced with bright sunshine and an air of vibrancy, despite the darker undertones of the final scenes. No, what The Babadook is dealing with is much more insidious. One of the points made is that, once you’re aware of the Babadook, it will keep coming for you, destroying every aspect of your life. And yet, the Babadook is not truly an external force. It is an internal one, stemming from the mind. The Babadook is an embodiment of grief, of despair, and of a lingering, unprocessed depression.

The metaphor, and deeper meaning, of The Babadook is why this particular film has resonated, and definitely struck a nerve. After all, refusing to process the darker thoughts can certainly lead to aspects of life being stripped away and destroyed. Left to linger long enough, and the darkness can overtake a person, until they feel they are left with no options towards moving forward. The Babadook IS this unprocessed grief, and the vehicle that makes us aware of it is often a trauma that is left forgotten, instead of dealt with. In the film, the trauma is the accident that simultaneously handed Amelia her son, while stripping away her husband.

While there are many scenes in The Babadook that are played straight for scares, the more effective scenes come from watching the family unit of Amelia and Samuel crumble. The hints are there before the book is ever discovered, but the book’s presence serves as an accelerant. It is the metaphorical gasoline being poured on top of the fire of dysfunction already present in the house. Samuel may have never met his father, but he is clearly aware of who the man was, and what his death has done to Amelia. The fact that Amelia clearly sees Oskar in aspects of Sam’s activities only makes that gulf wider, allowing for the darkness of the Babadook to fill the void.

It isn’t uncommon, especially in recent years, for horror to cast children in critical roles, but it’s hard to imagine a child actor doing a better job than Noah Wiseman did as Samuel. Throughout large swaths of the movie, there is an urge in the viewer to tell Samuel to behave, or else. He shows genuine tenderness towards his mother, but the flip side of the coin is far too many moments of pure aggravation. The lines are etched on Amelia’s face, and it could initially seem like simply another grating child actor being thrust into a film that they can’t handle. And yet, we, the viewer, are SUPPOSED to be aggravated by everything Samuel does. We’re supposed to reach a tipping point with him; not to the same extent that Amelia does, but we are not let off of the hook. Samuel is grating to truly help the audience identify with Amelia, and see how frazzled she is trying to keep it all together. Without that connection, the moments of true darkness would miss the mark completely.

That isn’t to say that The Babadook is a perfect movie, or that everyone will want to watch it over and over. Neither of those points is true. There are some scenes within the film that feel almost as though they were lifted from a different, less psychological film. And, while some will certainly sit down to watch The Babadook again, it’s a hard one to stomach multiple viewings of, especially for those who experience some of the same despair of Amelia. The Babadook doesn’t pull any punches, especially when things get worse, and while it doesn’t all work, it does all carry an impact.

I mentioned above that, much like It Follows, The Babadook has stayed with me. There are nights when I find myself replaying scenes over in my own mind. I have put myself into Amelia’s shoes, and see how I could have ended up along a similar path, had I not taken the steps I did to get better. The ending, which on first viewing seemed somewhat contrived, actually now is one of the scenes that refuses to let go, and, truth be told, I’m not going to. Besides, if I completely washed my mind clear of the ending to The Babadook, then I didn’t really get the message the film was trying to send.

Is The Babadook for you? The only way to answer that is with a strong “maybe”. It is an unforgiving tale, one that forces the viewer to watch a family dynamic shatter because they refuse to process what has come before. There is still hope in the world of the movie, but it is darkened by reality. Other reviewers have referred to The Babadook as being “unflinching”, and it’s hard to argue with the usage of the word. Most viewers will not be able to have the same adjective applied to them after they see it.

Scared Hitless: It Follows

One of the biggest things that ties horror to comedy is the fact that it’s all subjective. What is funny to one person could be dire to another. What scares someone could easily lead another to laughing about it. This subjectivity is both incredibly important to the genres as a whole, and something that can potentially lead to great frustration on their (or the viewers) parts. The question, especially in horror, all too often shifts from taking a more personal stake in a story to attempting a bit of a “shotgun approach”; if we just hit the scares broadly enough, we should be able to get the bulk of the audience at least once.

That can be a very effective way to go about telling a story, but sometimes, keeping your story a little more personal can be effective, too. Of course, the risk you run by doing so is that you can very easily split the audience into two very distinct factions. On one hand, there is the group of viewers who will not only love your story unabashedly, but they will try to get others to take it in as well. On the other hand are people who, for one reason or another, found the only redeeming quality to be the jokes they can make about the events that they just witnessed. A recent movie is currently hitting both factions, as has been evidenced by the reviews it has received. More personally, I was able to witness the precise split when watching this very movie with a group of friends. The movie I’m talking about, of course, is

via thehollywoodreporter.com

via thehollywoodreporter.com

IT FOLLOWS

In many ways, It Follows is a hard movie to quantify. It is the story of a vengeful murder ghost that is unleashed on unsuspecting victims via sex, so that kind of makes it like The Ring, except with intercourse replacing a video. But is it also talking about something deeper? And how scary is it, honestly? A lot of these questions are really left up to the interpretation of the viewer, and whether or not there was something in the film that grabbed their attention enough to want them to dig deeper. After all, on its surface, again, it’s about a vengeful murder ghost unleashed through sex, which might just be enough for many audiences.

The characters in It Follows, at least the living ones, are your fairly standard horror movie fare. A group of young adults, composed of Jay (Maika Monroe), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) are enjoying their somewhat temporally-dislocated life when, suddenly, Jay finds herself the victim of the eponymous “It”, all thanks to a bit of late night fun with Hugh (Jake Weary). Greg (Daniel Zovatto) gets roped into the turmoil along the way, and, seemingly, is the perfect answer to Jay’s problems, thanks to his presentation as a bit of a lothario. Much of the acting is almost purposefully subdued, which allows the film to take the time it needs to flesh out the story.

One thing it doesn’t do is worry about fleshing out the creature itself. What brought it into being? Why is it chasing people down the line, to get bitter revenge? Why is sex the thing that passes it along? And, since it will continually move back down the line, progressing through a reverse sexual order, is there any way to get rid of it? Leaving the creature without a lot of clarity makes sense, even if it sometimes feels frustrating. Honestly, it’s refreshing for horror to step away from the idea that everything can be researched or understood. Sometimes, the monster is just a monster that you need to overcome, or escape, not learn about. When that monster is ONLY visible to its victim (although it can affect and be affected by others), that just serves to heighten the tension for that character. It also leads to one questioning whether or not that character is a reliable narrator, by bringing their sanity into question. If only they can see it, does it really exist? On this level, It Follows answers with a resounding “yes”. The creature feels like something out of a dreamscape, one that ends up being at least somewhat shared, and fleshing it out, so to speak, would weaken it.

But what is the moral of the story? It would be easy to write off It Follows as a precautionary tale about who you have sex with, and assume that the ghost is some sort of stand-in for STD’s. However, that moral falls apart when the cursed characters are encouraged to have MORE sex, to pass the creature along, and to create a barrier between themselves and the monster. Also, if safe sex was the moral, and sex was what the villain was standing in for, the movie would never have taken any strides towards stating that Hugh wasn’t Jay’s first. In many ways, It Follows seems to be more about the loss of innocence than anything else. The spirit is able to change its appearance to keep its intended victims off-guard, and it seems that the most effective guise is one of family or friends. The movie isn’t trying to say that sex is bad. It seems to be trying to say that you never know who you can trust.

Of course, there is also the thread weaving through the film about The Idiot, helpfully read to us by Yara on her clam shell e-reader (seriously, it looks like a Kindle BirthControl). And yet, the passages from the book, specifically about the loss of purity and the relentless pursuit of eventual death, don’t really describe what’s happening here, either. Yes, these are definitely factors at play in the film, but none of this seems to be the central driving force. If anything, the film actually embraces said purity through the interactions of Jay and Paul.

It Follows remains at its most effective when it indulges in long, steady shots, much like the scene that opens the film. When there is a clear, uninterrupted scene, the foreboding of the monster, and its effect on the characters, is much more palatable. The opening scene is a incredibly beautifully shot one, in which an unknown girl runs out of her house, makes a wide arc, and eventually runs back in to grab car keys and drive away, all in one long camera pan. And yet, as strong cinematic as that scene is, it is the rest of the movie that really heightens the opening, as suddenly the film’s internal logic works its way back to what we already witnessed. We couldn’t see “It” following this woman, because she wasn’t the focus of the story, or our personal stand-in for the events. It is only after Jay receives the curse that we, the viewer, are able to see it as well.

Another point about the camera work, and one that should receive more praise, in my opinion, is how it treats the “male gaze”. Horror specifically has a tough time not subjecting itself to the male gaze, as we’re often shown long lingering views of women’s bodies. It Follows doesn’t entirely avoid this set-up, but it does so clearly through the eyes of the characters, and it is both men and women that fall under the camera’s “eye”. The ogling gaze never feels as though the director was simply adding it for titillation, but more that it was inserted to display a reality of uninvited “peeping”.

One thing that definitely leaps about It Follows is the usage of nudity, or the specific lack thereof. Point of fact, while the movie does have some sexual acts, they are all consensual, and none overtly use nudity to drive the scene. In fact, the only real nudity in the film takes place through whatever exactly “It” is, as more than a few of the forms it takes appear either partially or completely naked. However, this usage merely increases how disturbing this creature can be, as, again, it is at its most effective when appearing as a family member or friend of the victim. If this killer really is the stuff of nightmares, there are fewer things more personally terrifying, especially to young adults, than the notion of being relentlessly chased by their naked parents and grandparents.

I mentioned above about the “temporally-dislocated” setting, and that bears further mention. There is Yara’s e-reader, which would clearly seem to place the movie in present day. And yet, the films watched by the characters are older black-and-white horror fare. The soundtrack seems to be heavily inspired by the films of the 80’s. Overall, much of the film seems to be, instead of capturing a moment IN time, attempting to capture a moment OUT of time. By not allowing the film to exist comfortably in any particular time period, it simply adds to the atmosphere of the film as something out of a dream, or, in this case, a nightmare.

But is It Follows scary? Your mileage will almost undoubtedly vary on this. For some viewers, the film will stick with them, and they may find themselves looking over their shoulder more often than they did before. For others, the movie didn’t really work at whatever it set out to do, and it is best left as another forgettable entry into horror’s catalog. Personally for me, while I didn’t necessarily find It Follows to be an overly scary, or even creepy, film, I definitely walked away doing a lot more thinking than I expected I would. It’s refreshing to see a film of any kind, horror or not, that deals with some of the more human points addressed in It Follows. Just don’t ask me to tell you categorically what it means, because, as with all horror, the points it makes are subjective.

Scared Hitless: Antisocial

The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.

Horror seemingly loves to embrace technology, and turn it into an enemy. Think back to movies like Pulse, Videodrome, or The Lawnmower Man to see this trend. Of course, as with many other entries into the horror genre, the results have been varied. Sometimes, mixing technology into the horror yarns yields powerful results. Other times it just ends up coming across as a cheesy attempt to wink at the current times. It is this sort of time-stamping that forces horror relying on technology to sometimes attempt to bring in another piece of the genre as wellIn 2013, a group of Canadian filmmakers attempted to do just that, mixing today’s reliance on social media with the world of zombies. The result? A little movie titled Antisocial, which, ironically, could have benefited from telling just a little less.

Via thewolfmancometh.com

Via thewolfmancometh.com

ANTISOCIAL

Everyone is overly reliant on social media, and a lot of us have a sort of “always online” mentality, because of this. No matter your network of choice, you know (or possibly are) someone who spends far too much time relaying pieces of information out to the internet as a whole. Sure, you’re trying to drive it to your specific audience (whether that be friends, co-workers, or any other group of like-minded individuals you choose), but the trick with the “social” aspect of social media is that, once it’s out there, you don’t really control it any longer. The filmmakers take this one step further, to the point where social media is actually the vector for a virus that will destroy humanity.

THE CHARACTERS

A group of college students (Mark, Jed, Kaitlin, and Steve) get together to throw a New Year’s Eve party. Samantha is also invited, but isn’t really feeling up to it, having just broken up with her boyfriend via video chat. However, Sam’s going to show up anyway, because she’s friends with them, and she really wants to tell Mark that she’s pregnant (which is clearly what she was trying to tell her boyfriend when he decided to end the relationship). There isn’t a whole lot more information given out, which is actually at first a pretty clever way of handling things for the film. After all, the film is definitely utilizing the concepts of social media to drive the story forward. Therefore, it makes sense that, for the most part, what we see of the characters is just about what we’d see if we happened to follow them online. Sure, we might get a few deeper glimpses here and there, but the internet culture currently almost forces a level of anonymity. If there is any real defining trait to most of these characters, it’s that they just can’t disconnect, even with the world falling apart around them. Whether it’s the Facebook-esque site, video chats, or simple cell phone connectivity, the characters maintain their “always on” state, and it actually keeps them from really needing to have deeper motivations or personalities.

THE STORY

As mentioned above, Sam is pregnant, and her boyfriend breaks up with her, believing that was “the talk” she wanted to have with him. This leads to her going to a New Year’s Eve party thrown by her best friend (Mark, although we don’t really know how “best” of friends until late in the game). Once there, slowly a virus starts turning people into crazed attackers, resulting in death around every corner. The party group locks the doors, trying to keep the virus at bay, not realizing that it is somehow originating from their technology, causing hallucinations and nose bleeds before the brain is completely subsumed and they become something akin to the Rage zombies from 28 Days Later. For the first two-thirds of the film, the story moves at a casual pace. Yes, reports are of people dying. Yes, there are visible nose bleeds. However, it would seem that hallucinations being one of the symptoms would create fertile ground for an entire “is this real or not” line of questioning? The final third of the film, however, pushes aside that subtlety, making it clear about which reality is true. In many ways, the story could have been more, and left more of an impact, if it hadn’t devolved into a somewhat standard “will the Last Girl escape?” scenario.

THE DEATHS

The deaths are actually handled in a fairly realistic way, and yet, they’re somehow muted. Maybe it’s the fact that, for a good portion of the film, it’s possible that the uninfected are the “crazy” ones, it’s hard to feel anything really towards the first few deaths. After all, we don’t know if the “healthy” are actually the ones who are sick, and are killing their friends because their minds are lying, or if the “sick” ones are really that dangerous and need to be dealt with. However, once the reality of the situation becomes clear, the remaining deaths are handled in such a way as to be brutal, but not overly impactful. When we know a character’s time is extremely short as it is, having them die doesn’t really carry as much weight. Truth be told, the best “death” moments come either through hallucinations, or in a bit of surgery late in the game.

THE ALLEGORY

The film is largely trying to warn about the influence of social media on our lives, and the dangers of maintaining any sort of “always on” persona. Mixing social media with zombies could have even been a clever play, if the entire film had maintained the tone of the first hour or so, where the question of “which reality is correct” also seems to be posed. However, when it comes to the end, it is clear that the film is trying to advocate being more careful about utilizing an online presence, albeit it clearly isn’t stating that the internet should be avoided at all costs. After all, Jeb’s moment of hubris can be directly traced to his pride at having deactivated his account, especially in the way he immediately congratulated Sam on her recent account deletion. Also, given that the only way that anyone was receiving any sort of information, positive or negative, was through the internet, the use of the tool was highlighted, while underscoring the danger of overuse.

THE TAKE-AWAY

Does this review seem a little scattered? Honestly, that’s how the movie felt, as well. As mentioned above, the first hour doesn’t really take the time to dwell on deeper life truths for the protagonists, instead choosing to keep them fairly shallow while the virus runs its course. The hallucinations that were key to the virus even seemed like a way for the filmmakers to question whether or not perception truly creates reality, or if perception lies. And, honestly, the vector for the disease, while not necessarily new, began as a clever way to critique our “always on” culture. And then the last act of the movie happens, with a quick ditch effort to add in some more gore and shatter any illusion that the film was saying anything other than the basic “social media can be used for evil, so watch yourself” message. It’s not that the ending was bad, per se. It’s just that it felt a little tacked on to quickly finish the film, almost as though the ideas that had driven the beginning of the film ran dry, and they had to come up with a sort of hand-wave to explain things. The end result is a film that starts out fairly atmospheric, and one posed to ask questions, but, as the minutes tick by, it devolves into more standard fare, and becomes content giving the most blatant of answers.

Scared Hitless: Dead Before Dawn

The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.

It’s a holiday week here in the States, and, to be completely honest, I’ve actually been somewhat slacking in my duties. What this actually means is that I haven’t consumed anything new (to me) of a horror nature in preparation for this week’s installment of Scared Hitless. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to add a post. Far from it. In fact, I’m going to randomly find a horror movie on Netflix, and I’m going to do a live blog of it. This is my first attempt at a live blog. I’ve done live tweeting before, but this will be new for me. So, with that in mind, please be gentle, and enjoy as I subject myself (and you, vicariously), to:

Via bloodydisgusting.com.

Via bloodydisgusting.com.

DEAD BEFORE DAWN

Admittedly, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this movie, but the description on Netflix, coupled with at least 2 stars in reviews, makes it seem like a worthwhile venture for late on the night before Thanksgiving (and yes, I did look a little for ThanksKilling, but didn’t spend too much time using the search feature). So let’s get this underway, shall we?

0:00:25 – “I’ll be right back” is the horror equivalent of “I’m just going to get cigarettes”, isn’t it?

0:00:45 – Oh, Dad is back. And scolding the kid from doing something interesting and exciting in the first minute. Guessing now that the urn makes a reappearance.

0:01:03 – Dad just slipped on the treacherous invisible banana peel. That urn really IS dangerous.

0:01:10 – Oh, wait. It was just a dream. Or a memory. Or a dremory. Even if that’s not a thing.

0:01:23 – Christopher Lloyd is “Gramps”. Of COURSE he’s excited about the annual Occultist Society awards.

0:01:37 – Oh, THAT’S why he’s excited. His very own trophy. Got it.

0:02:00 – Also, what year is this taking place? They still use corded phones?

0:03:05 – Total rebel. Needs to be reminded to wear his mouthguard before biking. Because he’s not your monkey, Mom!

0:04:38 – Obligatory classroom scene to show how quirky the student body is. Or at least, how quirky the main character and his friend are.

0:05:20 – Kevin from Kids in the Hall must have been paid based off of how many times he said “doodle”.

0:06:40 – Hey kid, remember Gramps wanting to get his trophy? No? Well, here’s a random guy walking past holding a trophy as a reminder.

0:07:50 – Popped collar AND mis-worn sunglasses? This guy’s dying first, right?

0:09:15 – The shop is called “The Occult Barn”. It’s two doors down from “The Occult Bath and Beyond”.

0:10:48 Hey, the urn is back! Just don’t get close enough to spit on it.

0:12:10 “Remember the rules, and you’ll be fine.” And starring in one of the shortest horror movies yet.

0:14:07 – Aw, Casper’s friends are making him look bad in front of his crush. But it’s okay, because she liked his doodle earlier.

0:15:11 Of COURSE he’s going to show off the urn. He’s got a lady to impress.

0:15:56 – Of COURSE he dropped the urn. Otherwise, again, shortest horror movie.

0:16:20 – I think Mug Guy just summed up the entire plot of the film. At least, I certainly hope so.

0:17:23 – The curse may have picked the worst creative writing group for this. At least they play “Yes, And” well.

0:19:30 – It’s always nice when “imminent doom” brings its own thunder storm.

0:22:10 – “Are you on the weed?” is always the question to ask when someone spends the afternoon turning their bedroom into a bunker. That, or “Are you on the meth?”.

0:22:15 – I think I’ve already lost track of how many penis metaphors have popped up so far.

0:25:28 – That football team negates the need for slo-mo on instant replay.

0:26:15 – Suddenly the entire conversation after the curse is starting to happen. And without a spoiler alert.

0:27:00 – Maybe Mug Guy won’t get anyone killed. He’s a lone wolf (with mugs).

0:29:29 – First a toilet brush, and now meatballs. If only Casper hadn’t left his hammer in his barricaded bedroom.

0:30:20 – Is that supposed to be a parody of Tucker and Dale?

0:33:07 – “I’m gonna go poop”. First logical action taken since the curse started working.

0:34:45 – Turns out Mug Guy (who’s name is apparently Seth) actually killed a bunch of people. But he’s still a lone wolf (now with a mug full of slushie).

0:35:20 – Good thing Becky not only had a crossbow, but was proficient enough to shoot at the head.

0:37:37 – Uh-oh. Gramps realized what you did to the urn, Casper. He’s never going to let you watch the store again.

0:37:50 – “Great Scott” uttered. Everybody drink!

0:41:00 – So you all know what happens when you make eye contact with people, and then you proceed to ALL make eye contact with the one guy who might be able to help? Great job, gang!

0:45:10 – The most occult of all weapons? Grenades. “And the number thou shalt count shall be three”.

0:46:00 – Clearly, “zemons” can be avoided by busting out fierce faces and dance moves.

0:47:25 – Patrick, who has done very little so far to help, now wants to drop the “dead weight”. He really has to be the first of the crew to die, right?

0:48:40 – Points for knowing horror cliches! Points taken away from Patrick, who clearly didn’t.

0:49:15 – Even as zemons, people can drive. Good to know.

0:50:40 You’re killing people with eye contact, but still want to pay for gas. And they say this generation has their priorities messed up.

0:52:34 – Seth learns the hard way that a mesh screen doesn’t actually prevent eye contact. If only he’d gotten cheesy sunglasses like Casper and Charlotte.

0:54:53 – Everyone else got totally seductive about dissecting toads, right?

0:59:30 – So, wait, Lucy’s terrible “seduction” idea actually worked? Worst curse ever.

1:01:50 – Zemons. Total cock-blockers after you’ve run over your professor, am I right?

1:04:49 – Yeah. Thanks for clarifying exactly what happened to Dazzle. That’s an unpleasant image right there. The old-timey music makes it work, though.

1:07:58 – Oh, Lucy. Not all gentlezemons prefer blondes. But Becky will totally chastise him.

1:08:47 – Good thing zemons can be broken up with, though.

1:10:16 – Seth’s on track for a happy ending. Not like Dazzle’s. Or his bees.

1:13:22 – The sun’s coming up soon. Maybe wait to bury your friend until after you break the curse.

1:15:33 – Oh, tricksy magic books, keeping extra details hidden until the most inconvenient moment.

1:17:36 – Hey, look, a monkey wrench with mere minutes left before sunrise!

1:19:05 – In a move that surprises nobody, things don’t look great for our heroes.

1:24:18 – Credits roll, after a time reversal to set things back to right. Oh, and a sequel hook attempt.

1:26:57 – Now it’s truly complete. A rap synopsis of the film over the end credits!

That was a fun experience, and, honestly, a fun little movie. It certainly never spent a moment taking itself too seriously, which was clearly the plan from the beginning. Sometimes, fun is exactly what you need, even out of your horror. Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone!