Pumpkin Season

A creature feature with a moral.  Not a bad way to think through ethical dilemmas.  You see, we don’t have a lot of extra money lying around, so when I need a pick-me-up I try to find something free to watch.  Well, free because I subscripted to Amazon Prime years and years ago for the free shipping and now it involves “free to me” streaming on select titles.  Often I learn about movies from browsing and that’s how I came across Pumpkinhead.  I’ve learned my lesson about just clicking through without checking it out ahead of time.  It turns out the Pumpkinhead, apart from having major studio backing, was pretty favorably reviewed back in 1989.  My wife and I were in Edinburgh at the time, newly wed and trying to concentrate on doctorates.  I hadn’t been bumped back into horror yet.

In any case, what is this moral?  What is this movie?  Set in the unnamed rural south, the movie involves the accidental death of a good, honest man’s son.  Some city slickers, hot rodding on dirt bikes, accidentally run the boy down.  This good man visits the local witch, against the advice of the locals, and she raises a demon for him—the eponymous Pumpkinhead—to get revenge on the meddling kids.  The moral comes in where the witch warns him that such revenge comes at a terrible price, and it does.  The man and the avenging demon begin to merge and his desire for revenge leads to his own demise.

Religion plays a role in this film as well.  One of the locals, wanting to help the final girl and her boyfriend—the only ones left alive out of the six city folk—takes them to a ruined church, figuring that a demon won’t enter hallowed ground.  He’s not exactly right about that, but an extended shot of the religious imagery makes you think about the nature of revenge and what it means in a Christian context.  Besides being the first film role for Mayim Bialik (only 13 at the time), it also spun off two sequels.  Being a good student at the time, I was completely unaware of all of this.  I learned about the film while trying to stay awake one winter afternoon and trying not to spend any money to do so.  Not a great movie, it nevertheless does feature repentance and it explores the consequences of being driven by a desire to get back at others.  And the monster isn’t bad either.


Everything

It’s been getting a lot of press, Everything Everywhere All at Once has.  It’s been winning awards and it demonstrates that absurdism isn’t dead.  Absurdism is an essential element of existentialism, the philosophical school with which I most closely identify.  I had no idea others found it so appealing.  This movie’s difficult to encapsulate—the summary on Wikipedia is actually not bad—but it has to do with human potential when living in a multiverse where every decision splits the ‘verse into new bubbles where your actions play out in all possible ways.  And, of course, it’s tax season.  There are clearly elements of The Matrix here, as well as Brazil.  And it’s distributed by A24.  The message is good, as the story plays out.  The images are impressive and confusing and will make you think.

From the time I left home I’ve looked for two main elements in movies—they should make me feel and make me think.  When they do both they are successful.  Everything Everywhere All at Once is successful.  It also reminded me of how healing existentialism can be, which is what drew me to it in the first place.  Life, or to point a finer point on it, consciousness, is absurd.  You can follow the same rules and get different results each time.  And you have to live with the consequences.  If you think about it too much it leads to despair.  I need, and it seems others do as well, to be reminded once in a while that absurdity is endemic in this universe.  How else can we explain Trump?  Existentialism breaks in on reality and I used to self-medicate with Nietzsche and Kafka and Camus.  Lately I’ve been using horror.

The thing about absurdity is that it’s funny.  We may not laugh about what the universe hands us as much as we should.  Existentialism also holds that darker element called dread.  Sometimes that comes to the foreground.  In my own life, I guess I thought getting a Ph.D. from a major, internationally renowned, research university might help.  I had forgotten the role absurdity plays in all of this.  Everything Everywhere All at Once shows the universe, or multiverse, is the ultimate trickster.  There are those, serious scientists, some of them, who believe that each decision does split off another universe and that all possibilities play out somewhere in the multiverse.  Even if that’s true, we’re stuck in this one.  It makes sense, therefore, to laugh at it once in a while.


Urban Tiger

Many things are universal.  Ghosts, for example.  What ghosts do and how they behave, however, can be culturally specific.  The Jangsan Tiger is sort of a ghost and sort of a creature, and it has a religious backstory.  Of course, I’m referring to the Korean horror film, The Mimic.  I found it while looking for Mimic on Amazon Prime, but that definite article made this one free and it had received pretty good ratings.  Released by the careless trespass of a murderer, the Jangsan Tiger stalks a family that really just needs a break.  The parents, Hee-yeon and Min-ho, lost their son five years ago.  They move to Mt. Jang with their daughter (Joon-hee) and his mother, believing that the distance from Seoul will do them some good.  The Tiger, however, has other plans.

Apart from the well-timed jump-startles and stings (this movie “got” me more than once), the story is filled with pathos.  Parenting is probably the biggest emotional gamble a person can take.  The Jangsan Tiger imitates voices and convinces its victims that it is someone they love.  The children actors are particularly effective and their crying is difficult for any parent to watch.  This is horror that pulls at your heartstrings.  The family, as expected, begins to crumble under the pressure.  Religion comes into it because a shaman, ostracized from society, had summoned the Jangsan spirit in a kind of Faustian bargain.  He sacrificed his daughter and now that he’s released again, sacrifices others who are lured into the cave on Mt. Jang.

Interestingly enough, the actual mountain Jangsan—the movie is based on an urban legend—is in real life the site of an active mine field.  Somehow this moves the film from urban legend territory into that of parable.  Many of the scary stories we tell our children are intended to keep them safe from dangers they really can’t comprehend.  Adults plant minefields to make the land unsafe.  The real tiger prowling those lovely hills is one that walks on two legs.  And what that monster craves is human sacrifice.  Now, I can’t claim to understand the entire plot of the film.  Between subtitles and the lack of cultural experience, I’m merely a spectator to something that feels deeper than just a movie.  Those who spend time with horror know that it’s often sophisticated and intelligent.  It’s a genre that appeals to both the mind and to religion.  There’s a reason the shaman stands between worlds.


Of Ewes and Groundhogs

I need more time to prepare for Imbolc.  Or Groundhog Day, whichever you prefer.  Candlemas for you Catholic holdouts.  February 2 has the trappings of a major holiday, but it lacks the commercial potential.  Too many people are still working their way out from under Christmas overspending and tax season is just around the corner.  Still, I think it should be a national holiday.  My reasoning goes like this: since the pandemic our bosses now have our constant attention.  They’re in our bedrooms, our living rooms, our kitchens.  I see those midnight email time stamps!  We’re giving them a lot more time than we used to and seriously, can they not think about giving us a few more days off?  Some companies strictly limit holidays to ten.  

Can’t recall where I found this one…

Others, more progressive, have simply dropped the limits on paid time off.  And guess what?  The work still gets done.  I could use a day to curl up with a groundhog, or to go milk my ewes.  (Being a vegan, perhaps I could just pet them instead.)  What’s wrong with maybe two holidays a month?  (We don’t even average out to one per month, currently.)  I always look at that long stretch from March, April, and nearly all of May with some trepidation.  That’s an awful lot of “on” time.  (Our UK colleagues, of course, get Easter-related days and a variety of bank holidays.  Their bosses, I understand, would rather go with the more heartless American model, but tradition is tradition, you know.)  What if I see my shadow and get scared?  What am I to do then?

Imbolc is part of an old system for dividing the year into quarters that fall roughly half-way between equinoxes and solstices.  I go into this a bit in my book, The Wicker Man, due out in September.  That movie, of course, focuses on Beltane, or May Day, but the point is the same.  Look at what happens when you deny your people their holidays!  You’d think that the message that showing employees that you value them makes them more loyal might actually get through.  Businesses, however, have trouble thinking outside the box.  Take as much as you can and then ask for more.  What have they got to lose by giving out a few more holidays?  Otherwise each day becomes a repetition of a dulling sense of sameness.  Rather like another movie that focuses on this most peculiar holiday.


Gothic Days

The tradition of telling ghost stories during the months of long darkness has evolved over time.  Since the time seems right, I watched a movie for which I read the book some years ago.  I recall that The Woman in Black is moody, and gothic.  What I don’t remember is how it ends.  More than one source—at least one from someone I know and one from a book—suggested I should see this movie, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a haunted house movie, set in a haunted village and the production values (unlike some movies I’ve recently watched) are quite high.  This film was a reboot in a couple of ways; there was an earlier film version, and it was also a new Hammer production.  In the latter capacity it broke records for Hammer box office earnings.

You see, Hammer, in its first incarnation, struggled for any kind of respectability.  The company almost single-handedly kept horror movies alive while US studios moved more toward sci-fi-themed projects, before the rebirth of modern horror.  Fans knew to go to Hammer for their monsters, but society folks (and those who wish to be society folks) don’t find horror worth any attention.  From my amateur point-of-view, such movies give the viewer a lot to think about.  The problem, as with most underdogs, is that a few bad examples tend to get all the attention.  Life is scary.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to live it, but it does mean that we might learn something from other people’s mistakes.  Or we might find ourselves haunted.

The Woman in Black is set in Edwardian times.  (I often ponder why we still refer to historical eras by the British monarchs—Elizabeth, Victoria, Edward, etc.—in a world finally moving away from imperialism.  Still, it’s convenient.)  Perhaps not quite as evocative as the Victorian Era, but still moody enough.  Although there are some disturbing scenes, this is no slasher.  Like the novel it’s the tale of a vengeful ghost, wronged in life and out for revenge.  While the end of the movie isn’t the same as the novel (okay, so I looked it up!), it’s similar.  And perhaps it’s best considered a parable of parenting.  No amount of training can prepare you for it, and although it’s supremely rewarding, it’s also very scary.  Susan Hill, the novel’s author, lost a child and that sense of haunting pervades both book and movie.  Gothic is often about grieving, and perhaps about learning something from it.


Unfinished Business

Photo by Reid Naaykens on Unsplash

As a person who likes to finish what he starts, it’s pretty unusual for me to walk out of a movie.  When I say “walk out” I really mean “click away,” since streaming is how we watch movies these days.  Since I’ve been writing and publishing on horror movies and religion, I try to watch what I can without breaking the bank (which is pretty fragile these days with inflation and whatnot).  There have been, however, three movies, or television series converted to movies, that I have walked out in the last couple of months, all of them free.  I want credit for watching them, but sometimes I just can’t claim it.  The first one was for health reasons.  Amish Witches: The True Story of Holmes County is not a true story, but a television movie cashing in on current interest in isolationist religious movements.  I had to stop watching because the hand-held camera movement was making me extremely nauseous and time off work is too precious to waste being sick.  It wasn’t that good anyway.

Then some weeks later I started to watch Legends of Sleepy Hollow.  If you’re a regular reader you know that I’ve been on a Sleepy Hollow kick lately.  This series, about which the internet is mostly silent, is an Amazon Prime original.  It may be set in the upstate New York region around Tarrytown, but the vignettes I made it through had nothing to do with Sleepy Hollow and were thoroughly depressing rather than scary.  I decided this series, formatted somewhat like a movie, was something I just couldn’t finish.  I don’t have time for watching things that aren’t what they seem to be.

In addition to Sleepy Hollow, I’ve also been interested in holiday horror.  This is the theme of my forthcoming Wicker Man book, and I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book on the topic in general.  I knew there was a movie called Happy Horror Days, which I felt compelled to watch for any scrap of academic respectability.  (If a title tells you it’s directly on your topic, well, you investigate.)  I managed to make it to the Fourth of July before this truly execrable film just clearly became a waste of time.  The stories feel incomplete and the racist undertones (which may have been an attempt at social commentary) or that final episode left such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to walk away.  I’m not such a horror fan that I’ll watch just anything, but I don’t like to read spoilers before I watch movies.  It’s a dilemma, but to make good use of limited time I may start walking out more often.  Especially if it’s free.


Keys

Do you know the difference between “Voodoo” and “hoodoo”?  Well, The Skeleton Key does.  This is a movie I watched at the recommendation of a friend.  I get a sense—perhaps based on stats, or maybe lack of engagement—that you folks that kindly read this blog generally don’t watch the same movies that I do.  Nevertheless, I hesitate to give away spoilers for films I think more people should see.  So we’ll explore hoodoo instead.  But first, I can give you the basic idea of the film, in case you’re one of the few who takes recommendations from this blog.  Caroline is a young hospice nurse who feels guilty about not being present when her father died.  She gets a job with a couple in a decrepit southern Louisiana mansion where he’s dying and she’s doing fine.  

Caroline isn’t from the south, however, and she senses that something’s not right.  A modern girl, she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but she slowly becomes convinced that something strange is happening in the house.  That something turns out to be hoodoo.  Critics weren’t particularly kind to the film when it came out in 2005, but I found it moody and engaging.  There were some exciting scenes and I enjoy haunted house movies generally.  And this one uses a lot of religious imagery, even though hoodoo is better thought of a form of spirituality than a formal religion, like Vodou is.  The movie defines the difference as one between religion (Vodou) and magic (hoodoo).  There’s some truth in that, but scholars are inclined to class magic and religion together.

Hoodoo consists mainly of folk spirituality that involves some magical beliefs.  Like Vodou it’s of African origin, mixed with the cultures experienced by slaves in the new world.  Unlike Vodou, it doesn’t have any kind of formal structure.  The reason it’s treated with suspicion, in general, is because it’s of African origin and doesn’t fit well with northern European ideas of the way the world works.  Skeleton Key makes pretty heavy use of hoodoo as a plot point and it isn’t alone in using African traditions to inculcate horror.  The Believers, many years back, did a similar thing with brujería.  Although these folk traditions are generally kept separate from “religion,” they tread similar ground with similar aims.  And since they’re “foreign”—at least to button-down white Christianity—they’re treated with utmost suspicion.  I think Skeleton Key handles this well, and if you’re one of the few who takes recommendations on movies, I’d suggest it’s worth seeing.


Othering Offering

I get to feeling a bit anxious when nobody else publishes me for a while.  It’s a strange kind of validation, I suppose.  No matter my motivation, I knew as soon as I saw The Offering that I would have to write something about it for Horror Homeroom.  The article is now available here.  Horror, as one of the more intelligent genres, often has much to say about things such as religion and esoteric beliefs.  In the article I compare it to other recent Jewish horror such as The Possession, The Golem, and The Vigil.  All of them are worth watching.  Religion often addresses those things that scare us, whether secular or sacred.  Movies like these often make me ponder the sense of belonging that religious communities offer.  At least in the best of times.

These three movies each have their own posts on this blog, but the point of the Horror Homeroom article is to try to look at them together.  Judaism can be a particularly delicate topic.  Not only the Holocaust, but also subsequent political developments have led to dangerous situations for Jews in the real world.  Theirs is an old and rich culture, persecuted largely by Christians who ironically blame Jews for their own salvation.  And hate them for it.  Nevertheless Jewish culture and belief persist.  It’s telling that even when they invent a protector, such as the golem, they come to realize that it too will turn on them in the end.  Most horror movies, if they participate in religious worldviews, do so from a Christian point of view.

Some colleagues recently asked me to name some Protestant horror movies.  That’s a tricky question to answer because the American context is still largely Protestant as a whole.  And when you want to take on monsters and demons you generally call a priest.  Even movies like The Last Exorcism have Protestant clergy using Catholic crucifixes.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, Asian horror movies have also come into their own, often reflecting Buddhist or Hindu outlooks.  So we find religion and horror intermingling worldwide.  Movies are more than just entertainment.  They can be, and are, teaching tools.  We should pay attention to what goes on in their classrooms.  Not only can we learn about ourselves, we can also learn about those that we, or society, tend to “other.”  Like high school, there are a variety of classes you might take.  The day always starts, however, with homeroom.


No Plan

I suppose it’s debatable whether it can be considered a holiday treat to watch what is often called the worst movie ever made.  Still, I did so over the Christmas break.  Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is a frequent nominee for worst film, and Wood himself an enigma.  Disagreement over whether he really had such poor taste or whether he was hampered with budgets too small to achieve his goals seem to float around.  Was he misunderstood or simply clueless?  As many of us learn, breaking into big entertainment—whether it be film making, novel writing, or music performance—is a game of chance in which your chances are nearly nil.  So we might have some appreciation for those like Wood who, perhaps lacking talent, press on anyway.  Wood, who became an alcoholic, died in poverty, his work scorned.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is truly bad.  Everything from the stilted writing to the wooden acting is risible.  The idea that aliens are raising the dead to get world leaders to admit they’re there might give you a chuckle, but edit in previously shot footage of Bela Lugosi as a vampire, and confusion reigns.  Lugosi, who also died in poverty, was no longer even alive when the movie was released.  He and Wood had become friends.  Despite all its obstacles, the film has a good message.  The arrogance of humanity in assuming no higher beings could exist is still as much of a problem now as it was in the fifties.  And interestingly enough, Wood throws God into the dialogue as well.  There is even a Bible scene, if I ever get around to writing a sequel to Holy Horror.

At the end, the earthlings give a sigh of relief watching the flying saucer explode, even as they admit that the aliens are more intelligent and advanced than we are.  There’s almost a parable here that still holds true in the United States, at least.  We don’t like to listen to those who know more than we do, and after we defeat them we reflect on how they really were better equipped to handle things.  It may not have been any consolation to Wood as he died at the age of 54, but his films would go on to gain substantial cult followings.  I had been meaning to watch Plan 9 for many years, and now that I have my response is one of sympathy for a creative guy who simply didn’t have the means to do what he wanted to do.  And yet he did it anyway.  There’s almost a holiday feel to it.


Black Sabbath

I used to be afraid of them.  The band Black Sabbath, I mean.  I heard the songs from Paranoid wafting from my older brother’s room (separated from mine by only a curtain) and was secretly intrigued.  But the name of the band—wasn’t that satanic?  To a young Fundamentalist there was much to fear in the world.  More than once I bought Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare only to replace the copy I’d thrown away in evangelical terror.  I recently learned, however, the the band name Black Sabbath was taken from a 1963 horror movie.  And I also learned that the film was, in part, based on a Russian vampire story by Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin Alexei, titled The Family of the Vourdalak.  And that this story was published decades after Tolstoy’s flop, The Vampire.  That novel was inspired, in turn, by John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Polidori’s work was inspired by a fragment by Lord Byron, which he contributed to the ghost stories putatively told among friends a stormy night in Geneva that also led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Connections such as this are immensely satisfying to me.  Although I taught mainly biblical studies, my training was in the history of religions—it just happened to focus on ancient semitic examples.  Finding the history of an idea is one of the great pleasures of life.  But we’ve left Black Sabbath hanging, haven’t we?  The band realized something that Cooper would run with, namely, horror themed songs and metal go naturally together.  Such dark things led evangelicals to condemn the whole enterprise, claiming the band name was satanically inspired.  (Michael Jackson, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, was famously fond of horror, although Thriller is perhaps the least scary horror-inspired album ever.)

I’d never seen Black Sabbath before, so now I had to watch it.  Of course, there’s nothing satanic about it.  An Italian, French, American collaboration, it’s a set of three stories bound together by Boris Karloff’s narration, and it’s all in Italian.  One story is about a woman double-crossed but saved by an estranged friend.  The second, the one featuring Karloff, is the one based on Alexei Tolstoy’s Russian vampire tale.  The third is about a poor woman who steals from a dead patron and is haunted until the inevitable happens.  Not particularly scary, the film title was the inspiration for the band, not the content.  They were therefore labelled satanic because of a movie that has nothing to do with satanism.  The song “Black Sabbath” was actually inspired by Dennis Wheatley novels, which do, of course, deal with satanism.  The song itself isn’t satanic.  They decided to make songs like horror films in music.  And it all goes back to Lord Byron and the night near Geneva that inspired both Frankenstein and Dracula.


Truth and Belief

I met Claire Donner the way I meet most people these days.  Online.  I’m not sure how she found me in this dusty little corner of the internet, but she has one of the coolest jobs of all time: the New York City Director of Miskatonic.  If you don’t know Miskatonic, and if the title doesn’t at least give you a hint, you need to go back to your Lovecraft.  Its full title is Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies.  They also have offices in London and Los Angeles.  Miskatonic offers a variety of one-session courses on horror and Claire had emailed me about the vexed idea of the nature of belief as it relates to horror movies.  Her course on the Amityville Horror—“‘Based on a True Story’: The Importance of Audience Faith in The Amityville Horror”—was excellent.  It left me in a thoughtful mood.

The way that I write books is that I have several projects going simultaneously.  Eventually one reaches critical mass and starts a chain reaction until it gets finished.  One of those projects that hasn’t yet attained critical mass is on Ed and Lorraine Warren.  It’s such an avocation that on a visit to Jim Thorpe on a family trip, I stopped into a shop where the owner proudly displayed articles about the Warrens in his window.  I asked him about the Warrens—whom he knew—but I wasn’t prepared for an interview (and I’m sure, neither was he).  Meanwhile, relatives waited patiently outside.  One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Warrens sincerely believed in most of what they were doing.  There are nagging loose threads, however, that suggest they kept the financial angle firmly in mind.

To bring this back to Amityville, the course raises the question of the Warrens’ involvement.  They were among the earliest of “investigators” to take what was largely a hoax seriously.  They, however, didn’t get a cut in the profits.  I suspect this is what launched them into their promotional activities.  That book and movie combo brought in, and still brings in, the cash.  Who wouldn’t feel cheated?  But still, there’s belief.  For many of us belief requires some evidence, some tangible trace of truth.  These are the kinds of things explored in this fascinating course.  Horror and religion have been bedfellows for a very long time.  They often converge on this concept of belief.  There’s so much more to the Amityville Horror than meets the eye, even if we all know it was largely a hoax.


On Offer

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by various January blues, I took me to my homegrown therapy of watching horror.  The newly released The Offering raises many questions regarding religion and horror, focusing again on Hasidic Judaism.  I say “again” because several movies from the past decade have begun to reflect Jewish monsters, often in Orthodox settings.  This is fascinating because Judaism tends not to emphasize spiritual entities, and perhaps that’s why they’re so surprising in such a framework.  I’m not a specialist in Judaism, and I worry about cultural appropriation, but horror is open to all people.  Religion often plays a central role.  A former author of mine, with Routledge, wrote a fascinating chapter in his book that dealt with Buddhist horror films.  So, The Offering. (I have an article on the movie coming out soon on Horror Homeroom, so be sure to check there for more.)

Like most Jewish-themed horror, The Offering is intelligent.  A Hasidic Jewish scholar, wishing to see his recently deceased wife again, accidentally raises a demon.  While demons aren’t especially plentiful in Judaism, this one happens to be Abyzou, a character familiar to anyone who’s seen The Possession, or, perchance, read Nightmares with the Bible or Holy Horror.  Abyzou targets children and so when Art, a non-practicing Jew, takes his pregnant wife to visit his religious father in Brooklyn, the tension is lined up.  Also, did I mention that Art’s father runs a funeral home out of his house?  The scholar’s encounter with Abyzou lands him in the morgue in the basement where, as demons are wont to do, it escapes.  And it wants that unborn baby.  There are also other family tensions which add to the complexity of the story.

I’m not in a position, without committing a lot of research time that I don’t currently have, to gauge the authenticity of Jewish lore associated with the demonic attack in this particular movie.  It is a film, however, that uses many familiar tropes in the service of horror that’s fueled by religion.  Demons are, after all, religious monsters.  Unlike The Exorcist, the goal here isn’t to exorcise but rather to trap the demon.  Exorcism always raises the troubling question of where a demon might go once it’s expelled.  The famous gospel story of Legion entering a herd of swine makes that abundantly clear.  The Offering also makes the threat to a pregnant woman a key element in the tale, and since we know that Abyzou wants the young, we’ve got built-in suspense.  There may not be a ton new here, but the movie addresses some important issues.  The dialogue about religion deserves some in-depth consideration—perhaps after I finish the book I’m currently writing.


Annihilated

For a long time I resisted seeing it.  Partially I wasn’t sure if it was any good and partially—mainly—it was because of spoilers.  Annihilation came out in 2018, just as I was reading Jeff VanderMeer’s novel upon which the movie was based.  I will always remember this because I worked in a cubicle where I couldn’t see my fellow workers and the woman in the next cube was a bit of a chatterbox.  She and one of her coworkers had seen the movie and began discussing, somewhat loudly, what’d happened.  I was in the middle of the book at the time and didn’t want any spoilers.  I’d never actually met the woman in the next cube and I couldn’t go over and tell her to stop talking about the film because one of the reasons we watch movies is to talk to one another about them.  (Mostly I do this online.)

Enough time has passed, and a different woman at work, remotely, suggested I see it.  I don’t know why the movie did so poorly at the box office.  The director, Alex Garland, has said he didn’t reread the book as he was making the film because he wanted it to be impressions of the novel rather than strictly based on it.  Even as I watched, I recalled some of what I read back in 2018.  I’ll try to limit spoilers here, but if I’m talking too loudly you can just click away (and, hopefully, come back after you’ve seen it.)  It begins when a mysterious “shimmer” appears after a meteorite strike in Florida.  Those who enter the shimmer never come out.  A team of women scientists are sent in, wondering if gender might make a difference.  One of them, Lena, volunteers because her husband did make it out and almost immediately went into a coma.

A sci-fi horror movie, I wonder if it underperformed at the box office because it stars women.  The tension builds between them as they try to figure out what’s going on within the shimmer.  Species have mutated rapidly and the predatory animals are pretty frightening.  The threat, as in VanderMeer’s novel, is ecological.  The ending, I’ll say, is quite different from the book because it was intentionally written as a trilogy and the director wanted to resolve the tension in a single film before reading the other two (which I still haven’t done).  The end result is thoughtful and tense.  The acting is good and the effects are stunning.  I’d class it with Arrival as an intellectual exploration of what it means to be part of a universe we barely begin to understand.  And kudos for having women lead the way.


Not in My House

I had a friend in seminary—nameless here because I mention no non-public figures without their permission—who invited me over for movies.  Although he was more of a comedy guy, he liked horror too and I couldn’t help but think of him when watching House (the movie, not the doctor show) recently.  The film looked familiar to me but I couldn’t recall having watched it before.  By the end I was pretty sure I’d seen it with my seminary friend one weekend afternoon.  There was too much I remembered someone else commenting upon.  A comedy-horror, House is one of those not-so-great movies that becomes a cult classic.  The monsters aren’t particularly scary, and the plot’s a bit disjointed, but still it bears repeating once every few decades.  There really isn’t any religious imagery, but it does reflect on American involvement in Vietnam.

Roger Cobb, a divorced horror writer, moves into the house where his favorite aunt died by suicide.  It’s also the house where his young son went missing years ago.  The titular house, which is, of course, haunted, is where Roger plays out his memories of Vietnam while trying to write his next book.  Monsters pop out of closets and show up at his front door as he tries to make sense of what happened to a friend in the war.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as mirrors and doors open onto voids that confuse the narrative but make the film like a funhouse ride.  My friend, with whom I must’ve seen it, commented on several of these scenes, which is what convinced me, by the end, that this wasn’t a new film for me.

I watched monster films as a kid—I was a late monster boomer.  Kids talked about prominent horror in school—Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen—movies I didn’t see until I was an adult.  I watched a few horror movies in college and quite a few in seminary.  I moved away from them until I lost my career and then I came running back.  I’m not really sure what I’m looking for here in this haunted house.  Like most people, I don’t like being afraid, but there seems to be something hidden here.  Horror can convey meaning, even solace.  Very few people understand my use of horror for spiritual development, but it’s something with very deep roots.  And as realities in the quotidian world become more and more untenable, I’ll have at least have had some experience grappling with monsters.  Sometimes even with friends.


Like a Splinter

I saw that it was based on a novel by Ira Levin, and it was free on Amazon Prime, so I watched it.  I’m not sure Sliver did much for me, however.  Ironically I watched it a weekend after watching another Sharon Stone movie that had been panned, Diabolique.  (Stone grew up not far from me I learned, but then, it’s a small world.) Something I’ve noticed about myself is that my limited experience sometimes sets false expectations.  My experience with Ira Levin has been The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby.  I read both novels and saw both movies.  I’d classify them as horror, so I guess I thought that’s how Ira Levin translated to me.  What Sliver (the movie) suggests to me is that Levin must’ve been really conflicted about living in New York City.  In both this movie and Rosemary, getting a great apartment always comes with a hidden problem of a major kind.

Sliver is a bit difficult to figure out because the original ending was changed so I’m not sure what to believe.  One thing I know for sure is that movies that make a character work in publishing are never shot by someone who actually does work in the industry.  Either that or I’ve been shortchanged.  In the movie Carly Norris (Stone), who moves into the Sliver, has a huge office.  I’ve only ever had cubicles, if even that.  No oak paneling and book-lined walls for me.  In any case, the movie focuses on Carly’s home life because two men fall for her as soon as she moves in.  One of them is a killer (this was what was changed with the rewritten ending), and both of them are creeps.  One spies on everyone in the building through hidden cameras and microphones, and the other has affairs with the young, single women.  And maybe kills them.

I guess I was expecting something more like the original Stepford (the remake—why?) or Rosemary.  Both had a message with plenty of social commentary, it seemed to me.  Of course, both of them were pretty close to the book.  (I’ve not read this novel.  Perhaps I should.)  Sliver, at least the film, was more a matter of moving into a building with a mystery and not knowing whom to trust.  It really didn’t suggest much about surveillance, or women’s agency or lack thereof.  It did make a case for not moving to New York City.  I don’t know how an editor could possibly afford such a nice apartment, in any case.