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October 2016

Amelia’s Must-Watch Halloween Horror Movies

I saw my first horror movie at Tom and Chris Beimer’s house across the street when I was probably 9 or so. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I was, unsurprisingly, totally scarred. I had memories for a long time of a nightmare where a corpse was trying to bash a woman’s head in while she was pinioned over a cooking pot, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was a scene from that movie.

You’d think, after such an experience, that I’d be traumatized and have zero interest in horror movies. Surprisingly, it’s the exact opposite! I’ve always had a serious obsession with them (the Beimer boys and I used to play Freddy Kreuger in the back yard) and combed through our local video rental store’s scary section movie by movie.

I’ve been a fan for decades, and now I’m here to share with you some of my favorites. If you’re dying (he he he) for some inspiration as to what to watch this Halloween season, here is my mega-list.

Note: I do NOT like horror movies that depict a significant amount of sexual assault or extreme violence against women, or scenes of explicit torture. I like a well-crafted horror movie that doesn’t rely on these tropes for scares. So, if that’s your taste, then this list is ESPECIALLY for you (no Human Centipede style shit here). 

The Exorcist (1973) — In this possession story classic, an actress’s daughter is possessed by a  demon, and two priests join together to battle for her soul. I remember my mom telling me the basic plot of this movie and getting really scared just hearing about it! I found the book somewhere and read that, too. Pretty shocking considering I was thirteen at the time. Great characters, and fantastic music!

The Omen/The Omen II (1976) — A wealthy man realizes that his son was switched at birth for the Antichrist, and everything and everyone who opposes Damien shall fall. This was another movie that I somehow got the novel version of before seeing it. I’m thinking garage sale. There was a photo gallery in the middle with stills from the movie that scared the pants off of me. I just love me a good demon/possession/exorcist/antichrist movie. #MrsBaylock #yaaaasssqueen

Burnt Offerings (1976) — A family moves into a mysterious house that feeds off of the energy of the occupants. The cast is phenomenal. Karen Black, Bette Davis, and the illustrious Burgess Meredith!

Freaks (1932) — Hans, a little person and leader of a circus’s freak show, inherits some money. A beautiful but gold-digging trapeze artist marries him for his money. When she breaks his heart and shows her true colors, the rest of the freaks make her one of them. So, before CGI, if you wanted to make a movie about individuals with certain physical traits, you had to hire actual “freaks” — as American Horror Story: Freakshow recently did with some of its actors from Season 4.

The Ring (2002) — A reporter investigating a young woman’s death discovers her to be in possession of a cursed videotape containing a vengeful ghost that kills you seven days after viewing the film. This was my first experience with Asian horror themes, even though obviously this was the Americanized version. Creepy, creepy-ass visuals and some really vivid and interesting ideas. I saw the original, too, and enjoyed it, though I liked the larger/more significant role of the female character in the American version better. I saw this movie at Coral Ridge Mall with Geoff George my freshman year of college. That night, I covered up my dorm room’s TV with a towel. Y’know, so Samara would have something to dry off with.

Interview with the Vampire (1994) — In 1791, a Louisiana plantation owner mourning the death of his wife crosses paths with the Vampire Lestat, and becomes a night-stalking, whiny yet sexy immortal. All time favorite movie, not just horror movie! The best, best thing Tom Cruise ever did. In 2003, I owned three DVDs, and this was one of them. This film ignited and fueled my super serious Brad Pitt obsession that ran from like 1997-2004.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) — A young lawyer travels to Transylvania and inadvertently helps the ancient vampire Count Dracula come to England and attempt to spread his evil all over Europe. Keanu Reeves really tries to ruin this movie, but I absolutely love it. Winona Rider, Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, and Anthony Hopkins are all phenomenal. A phantasmagoric, lush retelling and the closest adaptation to the original novel.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) — Rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling teams up with cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to discover the identity of another serial murderer known as Buffalo Bill. If you haven’t seen this movie and consider yourself a horror fan, just go ahead and punch yourself in the nuts/boob. This is the only “horror” film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. WATCH IT, if only to understand the cultural allusions to it that pop up in all other forms of media.

The Craft (1996) — A new girl transfers to a private Catholic high school, only to befriend three witches and join their coven. Dissension and girl drama pit witch against witch. A high school classic of my youth. I almost wanted to be forced to wear a school uniform so I could find ways to dress it up and push the boundaries. Starring the magnificent Fairuza Balk. Pure 90s gold with a great soundtrack.

Dead Snow 1 and 2 (2009) — A posse of hikers accidentally awaken a horde of Nazi zombies slumbering beneath the snow. Bloody good fun. The sequel features Martin Starr, and a plan to awaken Soviet zombies to fight the Nazis. A hilarious, delightfully gory romp that is as ridiculous and compelling as it sounds. You’ll laugh, wince, and squeal. Stream it on Netflix!

Trollhunter (2010) — A group of unlucky filmmakers discover that giant trolls roam the Norwegian wilderness, and get wrapped up with an expert trollhunter on his journey to keep the world safe. Knowing nothing about Norwegian troll lore, I still found this unique found-footage piece entertaining as hell. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it. Stream it on Netflix!

Cloverfield (2008) — A group of friends and their video camera try to survive a monster-plagued NYC. Another found-footage gem that puts a fresh coat of paint on a Godzilla-style monster attack on New York City. When my friends Patrick, Lee, and I went to see it, a blizzard started while we were in the theater. I was driving a rental car because my Malibu was in the shop due to a snow-related accident a few days earlier. The drive home was equally scary…

The Birds (1963) — A woman follows a man she’s interested in to his hometown of Bodega Bay, where birds start attacking people in droves for reasons science can’t understand. Hitchcock may have tortured Tippi Hedren for this movie, but the man gets results. Another Video Village rental from like 8th grade. The scene with the guy missing his eyes haunts me to this day.

The Shining (1980) — A struggling writer and his family move into a secluded hotel to take care of it for the winter, but the place is wicked haunted. Of course, not a faithful adaptation to a book that I really liked, but I see them as two different texts. Kubrick weirdness at its finest, and again, see it if only for its vast cultural references. My favorite part is how they decorated Dick Halloran’s house. Once, my husband Lee and I were staying in the small guesthouse of a BnB in a tiny town in Florida. We rented this movie and scared the crap out of ourselves because the guest house had all these twisty turns and corners and Overlook-style decor!

Scream (and the sequels) (1996) — A teen and her friends are terrorized by a knife-wielding mask-wearing psycho killer. This was a pivotal movie for ’90s kids, and for the slasher movie as a genre. I get serious nostalgia watching it and will forever mourn the death of Tatum #RIPTatum! Stream Scream 2 on Netflix!

The Babadook (2014) — A single mother struggles to care for her son after her husband dies. Things get complicated when a mysterious book and a boogeyman begin to plague her family. I saw this when I was pregnant, and honestly, the scariest part was envisioning being a single mom with a behaviorally-challenged kid. But seriously, this is a tight, dramatic little horror movie you should definitely catch on Netflix. Stream it on Netflix!

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) — A documentary crew thinks they’re filming a woman’s descent into dementia, but her symptoms are starting to look a lot more like demonic possession. Great scares. I love possession movies and found footage, and this film really brought something fresh to the table.

Mama (2013) — A man’s nieces go missing, only to be discovered years later after somehow surviving in the woods. A protective spirit with a malevolent side has been parenting them, and she follows them home when the girls move in with their aunt and uncle. I don’t understand why this movie doesn’t have better reviews. It’s frickin’ scary! I thought it was a great premise and something I’d never seen before (and I’ve seen a lot of ghost movies!).

The Blair Witch Project (1999) — The film that popularized found footage horror tells the story of three researchers making a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. This incredible film was shot in just eight days, and was largely improv acting. The actors were camping in the woods as their characters, and the filmmakers actually came around at night to freak them out. If you’ve ever been camping, this movie will make you pee yourself. Case in point: my dad and his friend Ed watched this in a hotel when they were on a trip. Both are experienced outdoorsmen/mushroom hunters, and they both were up the whole night being freaked out! Yup, two grown-ass men up all night because of a horror movie 🙂 You know it’s gotta be pretty scary!

28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later (2002) — A man wakes up from a coma to find the UK in ruins after a plague of “rage virus” breaks out, turning humans into savage undead killers. This was a great update on the zombie genre, with a multi-racial cast and a strong female lead. The pull-no-punches filmmaking and the fantastic Cillian Murphy make this a bloody good must-watch.

Zombeavers (2014) — Your typical group of soon-to-be-dead teenagers head to a remote cabin to party, only to find out that zombified, bloodthirsty beavers have infested the area and they’re hungry for flesh. The description alone should make you want to watch this. A ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek camp-fest mess of a movie you need to go watch RIGHT NOW. Stream it on Netflix!

There are so many more, but my fingers are about to fall off. Enjoy your horror movie marathon, and feel free to share this post with others who are looking for a great list of scary films to explore!

Honorable Mentions: Rosemary’s Baby, Candyman, Evil Dead, Carnival of Souls, Paranormal Activity, The Orphanage, Jaws, Let the Right One In, Night of the Living Dead

Wax Museums: Royalty, Death, and the Uncanny Valley

Imagine you’ve discovered an alien civilization, and been sent in to study it objectively, Star-Trek-first-contact style. You note some ritualistic behavior that seems especially strange. The aliens have a habit — not a pervasive one, but common enough to note — of creating lifelike statues of people from their culture and displaying them in special buildings in certain places around the planet. These statues portray special people from the civilization’s history, as well as fictional characters that appear in literature and entertainment. Sometimes, there are images of characters as they have been personified by real people dressing up as them in costumes.

Sometimes, the statues are behind glass, meant to be gazed upon by the interested public. Other times, they are arranged in tableaus complete with furniture or landscape, posed with other figures to re-create a moment from history or literature. More often than not, the figures are accessible to the visiting public, who are free to touch or pose with them, to the delight of their friends, creating the illusion that the visitor is in the presence of the famous person or character.

Some of the statues are extremely lifelike, and it takes close observation to ascertain if they are real or not. Most others, however, are “off” enough to where they are obviously statues, or bear only a relative likeness to the creature they are meant to represent. In some cases, the statues are grotesque, showing their age, or are such a botched piece of art that you’d think they weren’t acceptable for public viewing.

Yet, the aliens still flock to look at them. These gathering places to view the statues aren’t as popular as, say, the gladiatorial arena events that the culture is rabid for, but the buildings have a powerful draw, and charging admission makes them quite the lucrative business.

A “Strange” Cultural Practice

Ha! You just got Nacerima’d. In the 1950s, anthropologist Horace Miner wrote a satirical article where he observed American behavior through the lens of the “objective observer” that pervaded anthropological articles at the time. It lampooned how white Western anthropologists wrote about nonwhite “strange” cultures and their “weird ritual practices” that, through another lens, would seem entirely normal. The point is, your own culture seems everyday and rational because it’s your culture; others with differing beliefs and lifestyles are automatically seen as othered and strange, when they’re probably thinking the same thing about your culture.

When we flip the script on our own culture from time to time, like Miner did, it’s easy to see how some things about our lives are pretty damn bizarre.

Take, for example, wax museums.

Wax Figures as Funerary Art

In the Middle Ages, was customary for the bodies of royalty to be carried atop the coffin for all to see before they were entombed. Unfortunately, on hot days, things got… smelly. So, the practice of creating a wax effigy dressed in the dead person’s clothes as a replacement became popular. Sometimes, these effigies were placed over the grave for some time, and became the first waxwork tourist attractions. Many of the famous effigies from history still reside in Westminster Abbey.

The most famous waxwork artist of all time is Madame Tussaud. She got her start doing death masks during the French Revolution, and is credited with starting one of the most popular wax tourist attractions of all time (though not the first). Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museums are all over the world, including right here in America. Wax museums have been operating and making some serious cash since the early 1700s, and they continue to be visited by hoards of tourists.

What’s the Attraction?

Western culture has been obsessed with wax figures since the 1300s at least. So, what’s the deal? When you break it down, give it the Nacerima treatment, it is pretty strange. Still, it undeniably fills some important role in our society, some hole inside of us.

Of course it’s fun to pose with famous people and pretend like you’re meeting them. They’re statues, and they can’t say anything back. You can put your arm around Jack Black and pretend for a second that you’re actually meeting the legendary funny man, and how cool that would be. You can sit next to Kim Kardashian and tell her she’s a phony blight on modern society, and she can’t say anything back. There has to be something deeply satisfying and almost therapeutic about interacting with our household gods.

Especially if they’re dead. The dead is where all of this started, and processing death and satisfying our morbid curiosity is the root, I think, of our obsession with wax museums.

Waxing Philosophical

The original wax figures were effigies to the dead, a way for the public, who never had access to the royal family before, to see with their own eyes what the person looked like, to be able to confront them in a liminal space between death and life. Effigies of celebrities, our new royalty, function in the same manner. You can stand in the same space as “Michael Jackson” and process your complicated feelings about him. “You had so much talent,” you can say to him, “but your life was so troubled, and I think you may have done some bad things. At least your suffering is over. Rest in peace…”

Celebrities and historical figures do play a significant role in our lives, despite how shallow and cheesy that sounds. We assign significance to them, because their music or art may remind us of certain times and events in our lives. Their words may have inspired us during difficult times. Visiting a dead celebrity’s effigy is one way of paying homage to them, or feeling as though you’re actually connecting to them in some way.

Embrace the Creepy

On the other hand, some of us are fascinated by waxworks because they are inherently creepy. There have been quite a few movies featuring wax museums, the most famous of which is probably House of Wax and its remake.

Some wax museums play this up by featuring a classic “Chamber of Horrors” where visitors can view figures of monsters or serial killers, and even walk by scenes of murder and mayhem from stories or real life. Again, here, we are confronting death, processing it, and flirting with it a little bit.

But some waxworks are creepy without trying to be. That’s because they fail to fool us, to convince the viewer that they are anything close to a real person. The spectrum of this failure produces different levels of creepiness.

Some figurines seem to resemble real people, but there is just something off about them. This troubles the part of our brain that is menaced by the Uncanny Valley.  Other waxworks are so unbelievably grotesque, created by a terrible artist or ravaged by time, that we are drawn to them to gaze on their unsettling strangeness. My personal favorite example is the small wax museum in Hannibal, Missouri, where the figurines are unintentionally terrifying, especially one of the Twain relatives, who looks like he’s melting, his glass eyes pointing in different directions.

Perhaps we see the breakdown of a waxwork as we would see the rotting of a corpse, and therein lies the fascination, the flirting with death.

If You’ve Never Been…

If you’ve never been to a wax museum, give it a try. They’re all over the country, and you’ll be sure to get something out of it, whether its your picture with a celebrity, a chance to speak to a dead icon, or submersing yourself in a genuine creep-fest.

I hope we never replace wax museums with, say, hologram museums. I want to see the waxworks decay over time and become uncanny and unsettling.

I’ve been to the Hollywood Wax Museum in Branson, the Musee Conti in New Orleans (which is now closed, but perhaps relocating), the one in Hannibal, and another in Paris. Below are some photos of my visits.

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Anno Dracula

Anno Dracula (Anno Dracula, #1)Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book. I got so giddy when I read the description and after the superbly exciting first chapter. What’s not to love? I adore Dracula, I’m mad for Jack the Ripper, and ga-ga for Victorian shit. This should have been a match made in heaven.

I so appreciate what the author was trying to do. But, in all honesty, it was a once-in-a-lifetime idea for a book that was horrendously executed.

There were too many allusions to things and people that even I, a Victorianophile, did not get, and that really muddied up the narrative. Muddy… that’s a good way to describe the whole thing, really. If you’re going to have this wild mix of characters and references, the writing and the execution needs to be razor sharp. I found several grammatical errors that were also very distracting. There was just SO MUCH going on. It’s hard to decide what to shave off, but for the sake of storytelling, I think we could have done without some of the subplots, like the Chinese vampire thing that never went anywhere.

I honestly had no feeling whatsoever for Charles’s character. I couldn’t picture him. He was a faceless Slenderman-looking person in my mind. I get that there was supposed to be some character building with his dead wife and Penelope and stuff, but it just slipped through the tangle and felt meaningless. I wanted so badly to like Genevieve, but again, maybe because I didn’t get the Changdanac reference, I had a hard time connecting. The scenes where she vamps out and fights are pretty cool, because I like a tough female character, and I also thought the scene between her and Lily was very touching, but I just… couldn’t catch hold. She was easier to picture and relate to than Charles, but not by much. So I could not give any less of a shit that they got together. Their sex scene was stilted and weird and I didn’t get what they saw in each other, probably because I didn’t feel them as characters.

There are these great flashes of brilliance, like the final scene where they confront Dracula. I mean, what an image — a blood-bloated Dracula with Queen Victoria on a leash at his side? The Carpathian guards were some very interesting characters, and the whole “Dr. Seward as Jack the Ripper” thread was totally golden. Loved the way he grew too attached to Mary Jane Kelley/Lucy. But it’s like the main characters just ruined the book.

Too many characters, too much focus on the wrong things, not enough character development, and, in some cases, lazy and repetitious writing. Such a great idea… I kind of want to just say, “Can you try again?” Or someone make this into a movie and snip out the bad parts…

View all my reviews

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Takes Baby Steps against Racism, Ignores Sexism

*spoilers below*

Last night, I took my husband to see the remake of The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua. I’ll admit right here that I’ve never seen the original, but I’ve watched a surprising number of westerns (I’m not sure how — I think my dad used to watch them on Turner Classic Movies, and when Dad has the remote, that’s what you watch) and I can definitely see what the writers and the director were attempting to do: create a non-racist western to correct some of the discrimination that saturates the history of the genre. The time period where westerns take place is well known for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement or segregation of African Americans.

The new version of The Magnificent Seven really wants to be an entertaining action western, celebrating all the trappings of the genre (a stoic leading man, quick-draw gunfights, kick ass horse-riding, and lots of staring at people menacingly) while presenting audiences with a racially diverse group of heroes serving as a clap-back against the genre’s history and the whiteness of Hollywood. I enjoyed the movie a great deal for these reasons.

Casting Denzel as a leading cowboy in his first western was extremely effective. It was like he was so badass that nobody dared mention his race, though they stared at him in a way that made it clear that his skin did not go unnoticed. Denzel has played hardcore righteous badasses before, and transplanting that into a western was deeply satisfying. Three of the Magnificent Seven were white, but they were interesting and flawed characters that brought a lot to the mix. The group rounded out with a Mexican bandit, an Asian gunfighter and knife expert, and a Comanche warrior played by someone with actual Native American ancestry. This coalition of people hired to bring justice to a town, despite their extreme diversity of character motives and ethnic backgrounds, definitely brought out the warm fuzzies, and made me desperately want them to succeed, and all the characters to live through the battle.

The way Native Americans are handled in the story, as stated above, attempts to correct some of the mistakes from the past. However, I find it interesting that one of the protagonist characters (played by Vincent D’onofrio) was known for killing 300 Crow Indians. There were also references to scalping. At one point in the movie *spoilers* Red Harvest, the Comanche warrior, is pitted against a Native American under the employ of the villain. He kills him, preventing one of the white characters from having to kill a Native American on screen. That same “bad guy” was the one who bested Vincent D’onofrio’s character earlier in the story. So, is the narrative suggesting that, in a way, D’onofrio’s character got what he deserved for his part in genocide? All of these theories could contribute to Fuqua’s attempts to be racially sensitive with this new version of the classic western film.

How successfully Fuqua’s film “sets the record straight” about race in the Wild West is up for debate. Some applaud his efforts, while others see his post-racial film as merely a fantasy that deliberately ignores the complex history of racism in our country. It’s the movie equivalent of white people saying they’re “color blind,” which seems like a nice thing to say until you realize it implies that the speaker is deliberately ignoring the inequalities faced by Americans every day, or attempting to shrug off some white guilt. I appreciate that an attempt was made, and I was delighted by watching the film, though I acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot more than casting a few different ethnic groups in movie remakes to create real change in Hollywood and the country at large.

Now, let’s discuss the gender roles in the film, which is where I think Fuqua’s remake fell flat. If you’re attempting to rewrite the western as a more diverse genre that is truly representative of America, I have to ask, where were the female characters?

Well, there’s only one worth talking about: Haley Bennett’s Emma Cullen. Her husband is murdered by the villain, and she takes it upon herself to recruit the Magnificent Seven to come save everyone. At one point in the film, she says she was the only one who “had the balls” to go out and find some gunfighters to wrest the town away from the evil mine owner’s clutches. Yet, she is accompanied throughout by a random male character (whose name I don’t even remember) who also lost a family member to the villain’s murdering ways. So, she wasn’t, in fact, the only one with the balls to try and find justice. Apparently she needed an escort.

They try to make her at least a little steely by showing off that she’s a good shot (only to then have her shown up by Chris Pratt) and when Goodnight flees the battle the night before, she offers to take the bell tower position as a sniper. I’m like, “Oh, good! I’m pretty sure Goodnight’s gonna come back at just the right time all Gandalf-style, but maybe she’ll get some sweet head shots and be badass!” Nope. They put the schoolteacher, who was previously introduced as a shitty shot and not even really a character, in the bell tower instead.

Emma does insist on joining the fight instead of just guarding the women and children, and the men let her, but they don’t give her a key role except as “cannon fodder” with the rest of the guys shooting down from the saloon balcony behind shoddy sandbag barriers. Which, if they were going to try and save her from danger, was the WORST place to stick her, as 99% of the dudes up there got shredded. Oh, and when she gets attacked by the evil Native American guy, she still can’t defend herself, and has to get saved by Red Harvest. The schoolteacher makes it, and even though the bell tower ends up being dangerous, if Emma was up there to be relieved by Goodnight, she would have survived. There was no reason her character couldn’t have taken that position and skipped the sandbag barrier scenes altogether.

Fuqua re-imagines the characters as different races. Would it have been so much of a leap to write Emma as a useful character, or (gasp!) MAKE ONE OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN A FEMALE?!!

So, all-in-all, the movie was entertaining, and I appreciate what was trying to be done, but as a feminist, I was pretty disappointed. I look forward to another remake along these same lines that is a little more decisive when dealing with race, and actually attempts to be fully inclusive by embracing well rounded female characters.

 

 

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