Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.

Connecting Connecticut

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic has been that my appreciation of horror is not misplaced.  Horror Homeroom has just published my piece “Demons or Ghosts?  Hauntings in Connecticut,” available here.  I’ve noticed that Horror Homeroom has had a surge of pieces since all of this began, which seems tacit evidence that horror is a coping mechanism.  It’s no wonder, really.  Horror often deals with “worst case scenarios” and specializes in isolating victims.  Now that we’re all practicing social distancing we’ve entered into one of the main framing plots of the horror movie.  Contagion isn’t an unusual trope either.  My article is about neither of these, but I still maintain that watching horror is therapeutic.  As with most therapy there’s good and bad varieties.

The films I write about in this instance aren’t good movies.  The Haunting in Connecticut franchise misses on so many levels that it doesn’t seem bound for classic status.  Yes, there are classics in the genre.  When the outbreak started many people referred to The Shining as how they felt being cooped up all the time.  There are those who vehemently deny that The Shining is horror, but given the association with Stephen King it seems difficult to deny.  Horror doesn’t have to involve slashers or bug-eyed monsters.  It isolates.  It imagines worst case scenarios.  All Jack Torrence needed was an inept national administration to put us all in the Overlook, one at a time.  

The pandemic has slowed down the release of new movies, of course.  The much anticipated A Quiet Place Part II has been pushed out to September.   Sitting here in isolation I wonder if that’s long enough.  Politicians with money in mind over their human constituents are chomping at the bit to get us mingling again.  Exposing one another.  Horror, however, knows all about aftershocks.  I don’t like jump startles.  I prefer my movies to built thoughtful, moody situations.  Despite their many sins, the Connecticut haunting movies do that correctly.  While they have other problems, they do throw us into a world where things aren’t quite right and we know it.  Elaborate plots really aren’t necessary, though.  The mind is pretty adept at filling in the story.  Like children asking to have the same book read over and over, we know how it goes.  We just like someone else to show us exactly how.  Isolation should continue for some time.  And horror provides a reasonable narrative to help.

Amityville Revisited

Remakes, standard wisdom holds, are seldom as good as the originals. When the original wasn’t great to begin with, the bar should be lower. Should be. I’ve been curious about the Lutz haunting in Amityville, having just read the book that started the phenomenon back in the late 1970s. I saw the movie first. That was several years ago now, but I do recall that even as horror movies go it had its failings. Some of that goes back to the book (presuming that anything happened)—nobody had a solid grip on whether this was a ghostly haunting or a demonic infestation. What the movie did do well is show how fragile family relationships can be, especially when under the pressures of supernatural supervision, not of the positive kind. Although, as is to be expected, the book was scarier.

Overcome by curiosity I finally watched the remake from 2005. Clearly I’m not the only one still curious about this alleged haunting, alleged hoax. I also have the alleged burden of looking for religion in horror. Only on this final count was it not disappointing. Well, that and in featuring burgeoning scream queen Chloë Grace Moretz. Although Father Callaway’s role is late in the film and brief, early on religious ideas are implicated. If the movie hadn’t tried so hard to be The Shining these themes might’ve been developed to good advantage. Instead it introduces Rev. Jeremiah Ketcham (also late in the film) as the first owner of the house in 1692 (did the real-estate agent’s mention of that date make you shiver?). Ketcham was a sadist to the Indians under his care, torturing them to death in the house. No time is left to explore the sinister minister’s motivation as the family implodes in its attempt to escape the house by boat.

As is frequently the case with the supernatural, we’ll likely never know what happened at the Amityville house. The story Jay Anson told is now generally classified as a novel. The preternatural can be judged neither in the courtroom nor the laboratory. The best that we can do is make celluloid adaptations to make some money on the deal. The DeFeo murders happened in living memory. The Lutzes left the house in a hurry shortly after purchasing it. Anson’s Indian “asylum” was never really there—and there were no such Native American practices in any case. What the remake left out was demons. Although the movie attempted other religious scares, the house just isn’t the same without them.

Babylonian Boogle

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I confess. I’ve fallen behind on my horror movies. My work schedule doesn’t allow for much down time, and on weekends when I spend time with family, well, horror films aren’t their favorites. So on a weekend afternoon when I was alone, I finally saw Sinister. I remembered seeing ads for it a few years back, but far enough back that I didn’t know what to expect. As I’ve often asserted on this blog, horror frequently draws its spookiest material from the deep well of religion, and Sinister once again emphasizes this point. With clear connections to The Shining and Ringu, Sinister does keep you in its web. Of course, ritualized murders are by their nature scary, since those who perpetrate them have taken leave of reason. I don’t read true crime because I have to sleep, and I’d rather not know what some psychopath has eating his brain as he plans his sacrifices. So it comes out in fiction.

The protagonist, crime-writer Ellison Oswalt, consults with a Professor Jonas, whose name those acquainted with the Bible can’t separate from Jonah, to find out about ritual crimes. Jonas informs Oswalt that the occult symbols found at a couple of the murder sites are unconventional. He eventually traces them to Bughuul, a Babylonian deity that eats children. The religious element couldn’t be clearer. Bughuul, who is a god fabricated for the movie, is effectively frightening in the film. But for the ritual element to the murders, the story might have passed as just another gruesome offering to audiences who want a little fright in their October. Religion makes it scarier.

The second appearance of Professor Jonas reveals that, like Ringu, watching the films that tell the story is dangerous. He delves into iconography. Icons, according to orthodox tradition, take part in the reality they represent. Bughuul knows that, and merely by watching the films, or looking at pictures (icons) you open a portal between his world and that of the viewer. By the time Oswalt learns this it is, of course, too late. Again, the element of terror is introduced through religious thought. Bughuul (Mr. Boogle) is a morbid iconographer. The reality of the evil is represented in the “artwork” itself. Once you’ve seen an image, you can’t unsee it. So it is that Sinister draws on religion to plumb the depths of fear. It is surprisingly effective, even on a sunny afternoon when I’ve had too much time alone.

Horrorshow

Halloween may be over, and more’s the pity. Still, Halloween is simply the entry point to longer nights and opportunities to revisit what scares us in the dark. I have to admit to feeling a twinge of justification at reading Richard Corliss’s article “Never Watch Alone: Hollywood’s newest horror films remind us why fear loves company,” in this week’s Time magazine. One sentence in his piece on culture made me smile: “Horror movies are a rite of passage audiences never outgrow.” Okay, sure, the demographics may catapult me into the more geriatric of viewers, but I generally take my medicine neat. I do watch horror movies alone at night. And I never hit “pause.” To be honest, I have no idea why I do it. I do not like being scared, and I certainly don’t enjoy slashers. I am, however, seeking something profound.

the-shiningOver the weekend my wife volunteered to watch The Shining all the way through with me. I’ve seen the movie five or six times, and I can’t seem to tire of it. The use of blood is sparing, and the pacing is positively Kubrickian, but it never fails to leave me contemplative. Don’t we all fear the madman that lurks inside? There may be ghosts in The Shining, but it is one of the least supernatural of thrillers. The monster is the protector, and nothing quite equals that disconnect for night chills. Corliss highlights the prequel to The Conjuring in his article, a movie called Annabelle. It is now on my must-see list, although dolls need not be haunted or possessed to be scary. Like Jack Torrence, they inhabit the uncanny valley of that which is close enough to human to be frightening. According to the pundits on the web, there is a real Annabelle doll collected by Ed and Lorraine Warren as a possessed toy. Debriefing with my wife after The Shining demonstrated the point Corliss was making, however. It helps to talk it out.

We spend much of our lives, I contend, trying to avoid those things that frighten us. Horror films do us a psychological service by bringing them to the surface, like desensitizing a child to spiders or snakes (at least the harmless kind). As we watch we learn what it is to be human. Religion, like horror films, is often a response to fear. Despite all our science, the world does not operate according to logic. The inexplicable happens. The horror movie allows us to explore the “what if” that science disallows. Once upon a time we went to church and held onto a crucifix. Today’s vampire is unfazed by our religious baubles. Exorcisms don’t always work—at least not completely. And the longer nights may be because the northern hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Or maybe, just maybe, it is something more.

Fear and Dissembling

The ConjuringLast year, when The Conjuring was released, it quickly became one of the (if not the) top earning horror films of all time at the box office. Based on a “true case” of Ed and Lorraine Warren—real life paranormal investigators—the film is a demonic possession movie that ties in the Warren’s most notorious case of a haunted (or possessed) doll, with a haunting of the Perron family of Rhode Island. (The Warrens were also known as the investigators behind the Lutz family in the case of the “Amityville Horror,” showing their pedigree in the field.) Given that Halloween has been in the air, I decided to give it a viewing. As with most horror movies, the events have to be dramatized in order to fit cinematographic expectations. Apparently the Warrens did believe the Perron house was possessed by a witch. In the film this became somewhat personal as the dialogue tied her in with Mary Eastey, who was hanged as a witch at Salem (and who was a great-great (and a few more greats) aunt of my wife). Bringing this cheap shot into the film immediately made the remainder of it seem like fiction of a baser sort.

Witches may be standard Halloween fare, but when innocent women executed for the religious imagination are brought into it, justice demands separating fact from fiction. Writers of all sorts have toyed with the idea of real witches in Salem—it was a trope H. P. Lovecraft explored freely—but there is no pretense of misappropriation here. Lovecraft did not believe in witchcraft and made no attempt to present those tragically murdered as what the religious imagination made them out to be. The Conjuring could have done better here. It reminds me of Mr. Ullman having to drop the line about the Overlook Hotel being built on an Indian burial ground. Was that really necessary? (Well, Room 237 has those who suggest it is, in all fairness.) The actual past of oppressed peoples is scary enough without putting it behind horror entertainment.

A doctoral student in sociology interviewed me while I was at Boston University. She’d put an ad in the paper (there was no public internet those days) for students who watched horror movies. I was a bit surprised when I realized that I did. I had avoided the demonic ones, but I had been in the theatre the opening week of A Nightmare on Elm Street (on a date, no less) and things had grown from there. I recall my answer to her question of why I thought I did it: it is better to feel scared than to feel nothing at all. Thinking over the oppressed groups that have lived in fear, in reality, I have been reassessing that statement. What do you really know when you’re a student? As I’ve watched horror movies over the years, I have come to realize that the fantasy world they represent is an escape from a reality which, if viewed directly, may be far more scary than conjured ghosts.

Room for One More

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Conspiracy theories have a definite attraction. In a world where governments are more known for keeping secrets than for carrying out the will of the people, they are often easy enough to believe. Elected officials are, of course, human. Humans have recourse to prevarication from time to time, but we do expect that a corporation that takes its secular tithe from our income should be honest about its doings. So it is that I find Room 237 endlessly fascinating. Room 237 is a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Winter is also an appropriate season to watch The Shining, so I took the ersatz experience of Room 237. This documentary, besides featuring some interesting conspiracies, also shows how religions may come to be.

Stanley Kubrick, as common knowledge goes, was a genius. In a day when movies are often pure escapism, much of it brainless, it might be surprising to consider a film-maker a literal genius, but anyone who’s watched one of Kubrick’s mature films is left in no doubt. The Shining, although based on the Stephen King novel, takes the story in very different directions, and there is much more going on in the film than first meets the eye. Room 237 interviews true Shining affectionados who find the “real” story line to be the genocide of Native Americans, the holocaust, a retelling of the minotaur myth, the faking of the filming of the moon landing, and a variety of other perceptions beyond the norm. Kubrick, known for the care he took in arranging every shot, clearly put subtexts into this film. What really caught my attention, however, was when one of the commentators said that he had his first real religious experience while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 has always been one of my favorite movies. Simple and sometimes psychedelic, even with the novelization it is almost impossible to understand. With that haunting monolith, so like an outgrown iPhone, I found myself as a child believing in the evolution Kubrick suggested as a higher power led from ape to space in the instant of a bone toss. The majesty of that film that never lets humanity claim any true superiority still has the power to conjure nightmares that The Shining can’t. With the grand soundtrack of the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra (himself the founder of a religion), I can understand how this might be a numinous experience. Movies function as modern myths, and, I contend, that is one reason that religious themes emerge so readily in great films. In Room 237 none of those interviewed considered any religious elements for The Shining, but no doubt, if an ape can walk on the moon, they’re there.

Let It Shine

Stanley Kubrick was not the most prolific of movie makers, yet his efforts often create striking impressions. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at a young age, and it has remained one of my favorite films ever since. Although I’ve watched horror movies since my college years, I shied away from The Shining until about five years ago. By that point I’d seen enough clips and parodies to kind of know what to expect. Since finally viewing the original, it has become one of my most admired movies as well. Kubrick films may not be easily slotted into a genre, and The Shining is not a typical horror movie. There always seems to be something more going on in addition to the growing menace of Jack Torrance’s insanity. I’ve been hearing about Room 237 for a few months now, and I’m eager to see it. Room 237 is admittedly a movie about a movie, an exploration of how The Shining has inspired multiple interpretations of what most consider to be one of the scariest movies of all time.

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An article by Jay Kirk in the June edition of Harper’s Magazine examines this movie of a movie. Kirk is the cousin of Tim Kirk, the producer of Room 237, and offers a personal introspective of a mind under the spell of Kubrickian influence. The article, “The Shining Path: Room 237 and the Kubrick cult,” not surprisingly, keeps turning back to religion. It may be fallout from the Kirk cousins both being children of clergy, or it may be that effective horror films are, as I’ve maintained before, inherently religious. Even the meeting of the Kirk cousins takes place at Gaudi’s Sacred Family cathedral in Barcelona. It seems that there’s no way to get at The Shining without involving religion. Not that it’s a religious movie, but it may take some religion to understand it.

No doubt Stanley Kubrick was a deep man. Even those who try to interpret his movies end up adding a kind of hidden message of their own to the plethora of ideas he eloquently shot. I know nothing of Kubrick’s religious convictions, if any. Any film with the gravitas to inspire continuing hermeneutics over three decades after its release, however, will surely open itself to a kind of sanctification. The penultimate section of Kirk’s introspective focuses on Proverbs 3.5-8, a passage underlined in his grandmother’s Bible. To understand the genius behind The Shining, it seems, religion will have to be part of the discussion.

Two Ghosts

To escape the harsh realities of a fractured career, I turn to celluloid. Lest Hollywood distract me too much, I strictly limit my movie viewing to weekends when I can let down, for a few moments, my constant anxiety. Since my religious antennae are always prickling, I notice implications sometimes in unexpected places. So this weekend’s fare included two ghost stories. Both of them utilize religion to resolve the haunting, but in very different ways. An American Haunting purports to be based on real events involving the putative “Bell witch” of Tennessee. The movie takes many liberties with this scant folktale, including a church condemning a seemingly upstanding member and a Bible being dismembered as the angry spirit attacks the Bell family. In the end, the plot is confused by a revelation of family abuse and the viewer wonders who it is that tears apart Bibles.

The second part of my double-feature was The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror film that fails to raise a single follicle in fear. Nevertheless, the moody movie does provide the Dies Irae for Stanley Kubrick’s opening theme of The Shining as well as a sense of isolation that would also inform the latter exemplar. The religious element comes in the form of a priest who is a close friend to a clandestine murderer. With the help of a ghostly screaming skull, the priest is the one who eventually solves the murder and rescues the intended victim of our erstwhile protagonist.

Nearly half a century separate these two ghost stories, and the role of religion in them has reversed. In the 1950s the clergy were society’s protectors. Even though Rev. Snow is the only main character who does not actually see the ghost, he is a safe haven for the victims of evil. Fifty years later, it is the church that sets up the haunting of the Bell family by its unyielding laws. The family quotes the Bible at the spirit and the ghost tears the Bible apart. There is no sanctuary here. Films, no doubt, reflect social attitudes. When the foundations have lost their hold, confusion results. Who is to blame for the suffering of Betsy Bell? The movie leaves that up to the viewer. There is no solid Rev. Snow to whiten the sins of this world. Only ghosts remain.