“Talley is wonderful at crafting suspense.” –Kirkus Reviews
Hello, and welcome to my website. My name is Brett J. Talley and I’m the Bram Stoker Award Nominated author of That Which Should Not Be, He Who Walks In Shadow, The Void, and numerous other novellas and short stories. Here you’ll find reviews of my books, updates on what I’m doing, my published short stories, and my reviews of books and horror movies.
Stay awhile, but remember. There is darkness in this world. Beware the shadows!
It’s almost Halloween, and some of you haven’t even watched a horror movie yet. Not sure what you’re thinking, but it’s not too late! Here are three horror movies to watch before Halloween.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Before there was Cabin in the Woods, there was Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Both films take place in a world where horror is real, albeit not necessarily in the way the horror movies make it out to be. And both are fantastic.
Leslie Vernon starts out as a mockumentary. During a brief intro scene, we learn that in this world, Michael Myers, Freddie Kruger, and Jason Vorhees are all real, legendary killers. And Leslie Vernon wants to be the next in that illustrious line. To make his legend even more spectacular, he invites a documentary crew along with him, showing them the behind the scenes of how these killers do it, the tricks of the trade, and the planning a good killing spree requires. But as the appointed night draws near, it’s possible everything is not as it seems.
I’d heard about Leslie Vernon for years, but it was only this Halloween season that I finally got around to watching it. I’d been missing out, and the horror mockumentaries and self-aware horror movies of the past decade clearly owe a debt to what was, at the time, a pretty unique idea. Leslie Vernon starts off a little awkward, and it takes a while for it to find its footing. But when it does, the movie simply launches into orbit. There’s a point, definitive and obvious, where the movie transitions from the documentary style to traditional horror. It’s brilliant and perfect and I loved ever minute of it.
These kind of movies aren’t for everyone. But if you are one of those people who loved Scream and What We Do in the Shadows and Cabin in the Woods, The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a no brainer. And what better time to check it out than this Halloween?
Viewed on Shudder streaming.
Spoiler Warning: Somehow, I managed to avoid all spoilers to this movie. If you haven’t seen it and want to do the same, I’d stop reading now.
Truly, we are living in the golden age of horror. Horror’s always been around, and there have been classic scary movies in every decade. The classic monsters of the 30s and 40s, the aliens of the 50s and the zombies of the 60s and 70s (and the 2000s). Exorcists and slashers of the 80s and 90s. But today, it seems as though we’ve reached a new level of quality.
At the top of that peak are new classics, brought to us by new voices with a unique way of looking at things. They aren’t looking to scare us with jump scares so much–though they know when to throw one of those in there. Rather, they want to disturb us. They want to burrow in and leave us thinking.
Movies like The VVitch, The Babadook, and It Follows have redefined what horror can be. And then, there’s Hereditary.
Hereditary hits you like a sledgehammer. From the beginning, it oozes dread. It starts with a funeral, and the atmosphere only gets darker from there. By the time that scene happens, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if you’ve stumbled onto the most depressing drama since Terms of Endearment. But the creeping fear that’s been growing since the beginning is about to break out, and when it does, you’ll be staring at the screen with your jaw open and your eyes fixed.
At its core, Hereditary is a movie about fate and about our utter powerlessness to fight back against it. We’re puppets in the hands of dark masters, and Hereditary drives that home from the very first scene. There’s something deeply Lovecraftian, and certainly Ligottiesque, about the whole thing, and if you are looking for a happy ending or even a bit of redemption, you need to look elsewhere. This movie is not for the faint of heart.
I’m not sure exactly what to say about Hereditary. It’s not a movie that I’m going to add to my yearly watch list. But I doubt I’ll ever forget it, either. I’m not sure you’ll enjoy Hereditary, but you must watch it. You don’t have a choice.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Horror comes in all shapes and sizes, but there’s something about small horror, in closed, claustrophobic places, that gets me. Only a few characters. Small sets, and not many of them. Darkness, tight spaces. No escapes. When done well, the tension is unbearable, every sound its own jump scare.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is one of those movies that does it well. Father and son run a mortuary/coroner’s office in small, nondescript town. When three people are murdered and the naked body of a young woman is found half-buried in their basement, it’s left to them to perform the autopsy on the Jane Doe to figure out just what happened. And figure it out they do, but will they live to tell the story?
The Autopsy of Jane Doe rises and falls with the actors. Most of the story is told through the eyes of our father and son team of coroners, as they discover more and more strange things about the body on the slab. When a storm begins to rage outside and strange things start happening inside, the story works because of their reactions. It’s easy to lose a story like this, to make it boring. But that never happens. The first two thirds of this movie are brilliant, and even if it slips up a bit in the final act, that’s a minor quibble.
In atmosphere and overall feeling, Autopsy reminds me a lot of Last Shift, another claustrophobic thriller. If you liked that one, give this one a shot. You won’t be disappointed.
Bonus review: All Cheerleaders Die. Caught this one on Shudder, and it was far better than I expected. Fresh, funny take on the zombie genre. Check it out.
Normally on this page we look to horror that entertains. But today and tomorrow, I’ll be delving into true horror, into some of the greatest mysteries yet to be solved. This one you may have heard of, but I bet the one you see tomorrow will surprise you.
On February 2, 1959, in the midst of a blizzard and sub-zero temperatures, nine experienced hikers cut through their own tent pitched on the side of a mountain and fled into the darkness. Half dressed, they made their way down the slope of the mountain called Kholat Syakhl—which according to some shaky translations means Mountain of the Dead.* Reaching the tree line, they cut down branches to start a fire. Here, two of them, Gregory Krivonischenko and Yury Doroshenko, died from exposure. Three others, Rusteem Slobodin, Zina Kolmogorova, and the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov, attempted to head back to the tent, perhaps to gather needed clothing and supplies. One by one they collapsed in the snow, never to rise. Four others—Nicholas Thibeaux, Ludimila Dubinina, Alex Kolevatov and Semyon Zolotaryov—were found months later, buried under more than ten feet of snow. Their deaths were the most mysterious of all.
They had obviously lived longer than the rest of their companions, as they had scavenged some of their clothing. Nicholas’s skull was shattered, broken in so many places that he would not have been able to move. Ludimila and Semyon’s chests were crushed with a force the medical examiner would describe as consistent with being hit by a car. Kolevatov died of hypothermia, though strangely, he was found with his jacket unzipped and his nose broken.
That’s the shortest possible intro I can give you into the mystery that has become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Books have been written about it; entire websites have been dedicated to it. There’s no way I can cover everything you would need or want to know about this case. If you want to dive into the mystery headfirst, check out this site. It has original documentation and discussion of the various theories about what exactly happened on that night.
Here’s a map that will help you visualize the series of events.
It’s in Russian, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. You see the tent on the side of the slope. You see the footprints of the 9 going away from the tent and down to the forest where they built a fire. One thing that is not obvious to those who do not know the story is the yellow image on the bottom right. That is a storage area the campers set up the morning before they died. It contained extra firewood, clothing, and food.
The existence of that cache of supplies probably answers one question–where the campers were going. It is likely the case that after they left the tent, they lost their bearings in the blizzard and went the wrong direction. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late to change course.
But why did they leave the tent in the first place? Why didn’t they take a moment to put on more clothes before venturing into subzero temperatures? They are often described as fleeing in terror, but the footprints they left behind show an orderly descent down the mountain, not a chaotic flight. But there is one image that simply blows my mind, that makes me wonder just what in the world was going on.
I have linked to that image below. I warn you, the image is quite graphic. It is a picture of Semyon Zolotaryov taken the day his body was found, many months after he died. Take a look at what is around his neck. It’s a camera. A camera! Why in the world does he have it? Adding to the mystery, he was found with a pen in one hand and a notebook in the other. But unfortunately, he hadn’t written anything.
I just can’t get past it. Whatever you think happened here–whether it was an avalanche (unlikely), the fear of an avalanche (more likely), escaped prisoners, Mansi warriors, or KGB assassins, if something happened that would scare 9 experienced hikers into abandoning the safety of their tent and rushing out into the cold, why would you leave warm clothes behind but grab a camera?
I don’t know that we will ever have the answer to what happened on that mountain, but I’m convinced the key lies with Zolotaryov’s camera. The film inside was badly damaged. The pictures recovered from the camera can be viewed at the bottom of this page.
Maybe there was something in the sky that night, something Zolotaryov was trying to capture on film. Maybe what ever that was, a missile, a plane, or something more extraordinary, that was the thing that made the campers leave their tent and rush to their death.
So what do you think? What’s your theory? What happened on that mountain side all those years ago? Let me know in the comments.
*It probably actually means Dead Mountain, as in, a mountain on which nothing grows. But that’s not creepy enough.
In the conclusion to our review of Dreams in the Witch House, the rock opera reaches its conclusion. Darkness falls, and the fight for Gilman’s soul rages on.
11. Blessed are the Faithful
Gilman’s friends unite to conduct an intervention with Gilman on the eve of Walpurgis Night. They urge him to put his faith in God, even as a child has been abducted from town. Meanwhile, chants float down from Meadows Hill…
12. Crawling Chaos
But the forces of evil aligned against Gilman are too strong. The nameless cults shout his name, and Nyarlathotep answers them.
Now Gilman comes face to face with the mad chaos at the heart of all things, the blind idiot god, Azathoth. This is the ultimate conclusion of Gilman’s research—the opening of the way to an ancient evil that lurks beyond all space and time.
14. The Sacrifice/No Turning Back reprise
Our story reaches its climax as the moon rises on Walpurgis Night. Now Gilman must decide with whom he stands—the dark forces that he has unleashed or the world of light that he has left behind. Will he fight, or will he give in?
15. Between Reality and Dreaming
At the heart of Lovecraftian horror, in my view, is that hope comes with a price. Victories may be won, but only at great cost. So too with Gilman.
16. Madness is my Destiny
At the end of all things, Gilman wonders the lost worlds. So his tragedy concludes.
As Dreams in the Witch House continues, Gilman is falling further under Keziah’s spell. Will he turn back in time?
6. No Turning Back
Nope. In one of the great songs on the album, Keziah arrives in her full glory. A combination of sultry and foreboding, Keziah draws Gilman further down the path of forbidden knowledge. Representing the seduction of forbidden knowledge, Keziah is a siren leading Gilman to his own destruction.
7. Signum Crucis
As Gilman falls under Keziah’s spell, the devout people who live in the house with him take action. For they have seen the violet light underneath his door, the same light that sages throughout time have recognized as a sign of the satanic. Replete with heavy metal riffs, “Signum Crucis” introduces us to the witch’s familiar, Brown Jenkin.
8. Nothing I Can Do
Gilman finds himself wondering the deserted streets of an ungodly city, not knowing whether his soul is forever lost. A ballad of despair, Kaziah comes to comfort Gilman, to help him see the inevitability of his fate.
9. Legends and Lore
Of all the songs on the album, this one is my favorite. Imbuing Keziah with far more humanity than Lovecraft could ever have imagined, “Legends and Lore” is a testament to the genius of the HPHLS.
10. The Sleepwalker
Gilman falls further and further under the spell of Keziah, finding himself walking down the rain-streaked streets of Arkham.
If there’s one thing fans of Lovecraft love more than his work, it’s criticizing that work, and “The Dreams in the Witch House” has had its fair share. From August Derleth to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraftians have heaped scorn upon the novella. De gustibus non est disputandum andall that jazz, but I find these attacks to be baseless, founded more in critics’ own views of what Lovecraft should be than what he sometimes is. Just as Joshi criticizes another Lovecraftian masterpiece, The Dunwich Horror, as an “aesthetic mistake” that presents a “stock good-verses-evil scenario,” there are some in the horror community who reject the good and evil paradigm altogether in Lovecraftian fiction, particularly when the good guys win.
“The Dreams in the Witch House” not only presents a struggle between good and evil, it contains elements that truly terrify some Lovecraftians—Judeo-Christian concepts. It also has some of the best characters in Lovecraft’s fiction—Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason, and Walter Gilman. We have call-backs to the Salem witch trials, Cotton Mather, and Judge John Hathorne, Walpurgis Night playing a central role, the appearance of the Necronomicon, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and a cutting-edge mathematical explanation for magic and the realms of the Old Ones.
That’s a lot to recommend it, and perhaps it’s no surprise that two of my favorite interpretations of Lovecraft’s work came from this story—the Master of Horrorepisode directed by Stuart Gordon and the unparalleled H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s production of Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera. Both are great, but the rock opera is brilliant. The HPLHS cut no corners here. Brian Sammons, horror critic and author, laid it out best:
First off, the HPLHS got some talented ringers to back them up on this massive, musical Mythos odyssey. The opera has 16 tracks that feature over 17 singers, including Jody Ashworth (The Trans Siberian Orchestra, which was original formed by members of the aforementioned Savatage), Alaine Kashian (Broadway’s Cats) and Swedish metal phenom Chris Laney as the wonderfully wicked Brown Jenkin. That not enough musical street cred for you? Well, how about this, the album features 14 musicians, including Bruce Kulick (former KISS guitarist) and Douglas Blair Lucek (guitarist for W.A.S.P.). Yes, this album has links to both Savatage and W.A.S.P. Oh, you know I was a happy metalhead to learn that.
So yeah, this is not just your brother throwing something together in his backyard. Over the next three days, we’ll walk through this masterpiece, song by song. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments.
1.The Confession/Arkham Overture
Our adventure begins with Frank Elwood taking confession with Father Inwanicki, setting up that our story will be told in the form of flashbacks. The intro establishes the overall feel for rest of the production, casting Arkham as a place of darkness and mounting dread, while introducing us to some musical riffs that will repeat themselves throughout.
2. Dreams in the Witch House
The first real track is an ensemble blitz laying out the nature of the witch house and the contours of the story. Frank Elwood leads off, followed by the introduction of Walter Gilman himself. A chorus of characters serenades us, and then, like a canon shot, Alaine Kashian makes her first appearance as Keziah Mason, and you know you’ve got something special on your hands.
3. Higher Fire: Breaking Me Down
We learn a little bit more about Gilman and how committed he is to the study of mathematics and the other dimensions that may surround us. Contrast that with Joseph Mazurewicz, who is equally committed to opposing the forces of evil he sees gathering in anticipation of Walpurgis Night. Gilman thinks that Mazurewicz is little more than an annoyance, part of the endless cacophony that is slowly driving him insane. But Gilman is starting to see that the very walls that surround him may hold the key to his studies into the strange geometries that make up the world.
4. Bridge to The Stars
Gilman lays out the cosmic theory he is pursuing, as he attempts to find a way to pass between this dimension to the next. His professor and classmates are initially skeptical, but as Gilman lays out the theory, they start to believe. The chorus that follows reminds me of something out of Rent.
5. The Nightmare
Even as Gilman’s theory comes closer to reality, the pressure of his work has begun to invade his dreams. In those nightmares, he walks the path of ancient lost cities of impossible geometries and sees unspeakable things. Gilman the scientist finds himself turning to his faith to protect him from the madness around him. As he calls upon his Lord, a new voice enters, that of Kaziah Mason.
One of the best remakes ever–and that’s saying a lot considering the source material–Dawn of the Dead also has one of the best scenes of any zombie film. Most zombie movies, for whatever reason, don’t show the fall. The pick up sometime later. But this movie managed to capture exactly what it might be like to wake up on the last day of civilization.
I loved The Babadook, and I think a big reason is this scene. It starts so innocently, and yet it gets under your skin, unnerving you, making you think you something is watching over your shoulder. And maybe it is.
Sinister is an underappreciated horror movie in my view. But I don’t know anyone who didn’t appreciate this scene. Perhaps the single greatest jump scare out there. Turn the lights down and the volume up.
This is, without a doubt, my favorite scene in all of horror. It’s perfect. Perfectly written. Perfectly acted. And it sums up everything that A Nightmare on Elm Street is about.(As an aside, Nightmare is my favorite horror movie.
Today, I want to share with you some of my favorite horror movie scenes. I don’t know about you, but a good horror scene makes me positively giddy. Like, laugh out loud, smile like a madman, giddy. Am I the only one? No? Yes? Anyway, here we go. Let me know your favorites in the comments.
Oh, and P.S., in the tradition of all great horror, this post will have a sequel. Come back tomorrow for Part II, where I reveal my favorite horror scene of all time.
This scene is everything that quiet horror should be. An ordinary day, a record player (always creepy), no reason to think anything is going to happen. But if you are watching, you’ll spy something out of place early on in the scene. I love this scene, and I get chills every time I watch it.
The best scene in one of the best horror movies ever made, here we meet the Cenobites in all their glory. I’ll always believe that this scene and our desire to see more, learn more, and know more about the Cenobites spawned the countless Hellraiser sequels. After all, they have such sights to show us.
Murder ballads have always been a thing. We’ve always been obsessed by the monsters that walk among us, not long in tooth and claw like the beasts in a fairy tale, but all the more terrifying. Because they are real, and they exist, and any of us could be their victims. Is it any surprise that these beasts would inspire stories? Movies? And yes, songs? Here are some of the best murder ballads about serial killers.
John Wayne Gacy by Sufjan Stevens
It’s weird to say you have a “favorite” serial killer, but Gacy is mine. It’s the clown thing, which is so insanely creepy as to defy being real.
Possum Kingdom by The Toadies
You may not know this is a song about a serial killer, but it is. Listen to the lyrics.
Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper
A murder ballad in the old school style, Black River Killer tells quite the tale.
What’s He Building by Tom Waits
This song is not actually about a serial killer…or is it? The paranoia of the narrator is creepy enough, but maybe not as creepy as the goings on of the person he is watching.
Children are impressionable. I say this not as a father but as a human being. The older I get, the more I realize just how impressionable they are. The nature vs nurture debate is eternal, but one thing of which I am sure is this–the horror that I watched and read as a child shaped me, more than I could have ever imagined.
I find myself, to this day, thinking of certain of these experiences. There was R.L. Stein, that most prolific of horror authors for children and pre-teens. Goosebumps made him famous, but it was Fear Street that I walked down. The stories followed a fairly predictable pattern, and it was never difficult to figure out who the killer was. But to these young eyes, every book was wonderful, and I couldn’t wait to pick up the next one at Wal-Mart. I probably read every single one of them before I was finished.
There was “The Raft,” the second story on the second Creepshow. Some college kids head out to a nondescript lake to go for a late summer swim. They get to the raft in the middle just ahead of what looks like an oil-slick floating across the water. But they learn soon it’s so much more than that, and they may not escape with their lives.
There was “Where the Summer Ends,” a short story by Karl Edward Wagner that I read in a book called Nightmares in Dixie. I’d picked it up in my elementary school library. Pretty sure the librarians had never read that one, cause if they had, it wouldn’t have stayed on the shelves. The story was about the things that live in kudzu, the ubiquitous plant that seems to cover half of the south. It borrowed into my mind like crawling vines, and it never let go. For decades, I thought about that story, never knowing who had written it, until I came upon it for a panel I was preparing for at a horror conference. It felt like coming home.
I wonder sometimes whether revisiting these childhood memories would be a mistake. I’m sure the Fear Street books no longer hang together. The acting and special effects in “The Raft” are probably terrible. The It miniseries that shocked me as a child would probably bore me now. (Though “Where the Summer Ends” is as good as ever).
But that’s not what matters. What matters is the impression they left, and the gift that they gave, a gift that has lasted a lifetime.
The lesson? Share your love of horror with your children. You never know what may start from small beginnings.
As I explained earlier in the month, I just had a baby. And that’s got me thinking more about horror books written specifically for children. And being a horror author, I’ve received quite a few as gifts in recent days. Here are three I recommend, particularly to anyone looking to raise a little Lovecraftian.
One of the first things you teach your children is their ABCs, but what if your kids can’t tell the difference between C and Z? Then C is for Cthulhu is for you. Written by Jason Ciaramella with beautiful illustrations by Greg Murphy, this book will be a hit in any household.
“Dagon” was the first story by Lovecraft I ever read. If I’d had this book when I was a kid, it could have been the first story of any kind I ever read. Illustrated and told in a style reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, Dagon is a great way to introduce your kids to the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft.
Without question, the very best of these Lovecraftian kids books is Ivankovic’s treatment of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Also done in a Seussian style, Ivankovic manages to capture the original feeling of dread that pervades Lovecraft’s work–all in a sing-song rhyme and with child-friendly illustrations. A can’t miss.
Few genres call for the audience to suspend its disbelief more often than horror. Some of this is understandable–we’re dealing with the supernatural, after all. But some of them are just lazy, and they happen so often that they’ve become standard fare in horror parody’s. The car that won’t start, the heroine who runs up the stairs instead of out the front door, the amorous couple who insists on getting frisky in the abandoned field/house/road/cemetery/amusement park/slaughterhouse…you get the picture.
Here are three of my personal horror pet peeves. Let me know yours in the comments.
The people who refuse to react properly to a paranormal event.
This one happens all the time. Something really crazy weird happens, the scene or chapter ends, and then the next chapter opens with the characters just going on about their business. Maybe they mention it in passing, maybe they talk about that really weird thing that happened, but they never react the way normal people would. Take any haunted house movie. How many of you would stay after even one of the creepy things in Insidiousor Sinisteror The Conjuring? Some ghost lures me into the basement and claps next to my head, I’m out, and I don’t care if I have to declare bankruptcy and live in my parents’ house for the rest of my life. A close corollary to this is the people who don’t call the police when they obviously should.
2. The people in a zombie movie that don’t kill every zombie they see.
You’re living in a zombie infested wasteland. There’s not going to be a cure, but you’ve got a pretty good setup in the local prison. But for some reason, you don’t kill the zombies gathered at the fence. You don’t kill the random zombies you see wondering down the roads when you go out on a run. You just leave them. Cause…why? This thing ain’t ending. So why not kill every single zombie you see? It might take a while, but eventually you and your group are going to at least thin out the herd a little bit. And hey, every zombie you kill is one less zombie that might kill you. So get to killing zombies. If we can wipe out the wolf and the buffalo, we can wipe out the undead.
3. The people who never listen to their significant others.
Don’t know why, but this one I especially hate. I read a book once where a husband and wife moved into a haunted house. Each chapter was told from one of their perspectives. Crazy things were happening to both of them. They didn’t tell each other at first (which also annoys me), but worse than that, when one would open up about some strange thing that was happening, the other would act like they must be going crazy. This happened again and again and again until finally I got so sick of it I stopped reading. You can make this trope work–if it’s only one of them hearing noises or seeing ghosts and that one happened to have had some mental breakdown in the past. But otherwise, spare me.
What would you do to have one last moment with the ones you love and have lost? What would you give up? Would you risk your life? Would you risk your soul? That’s the question at the heart of A Dark Song.
A Dark Song investigates a paranormal subject that has always interested me but I’ve never seen a movie tackle—just how dang hard it is to pull off a magical ritual. Forget what you’ve seen in the films, the ancient mystics made it more or less impossible to actually complete one of these things. The Grand Grimoire, written by Satan himself some say, contains a ritual that takes some six to eighteen months and involves privations that would make a masochist blush. If you ever wondered why more people aren’t walking around casting spells—other than the, you know, fact magic isn’t real—the difficulty involved is a place to start.
Why am I mentioning all this? Because that’s the bulk of A Dark Song. A women rents a house in the wilds of Wales so that she can lock herself inside with her mystical guide and embark on a quest to complete a magical rite–this one contained in the real grimoire The Book of Abramelin. It will take months, and during that time they will be stuck together. You can imagine how well that’s going to go. The ritual may or may not be working, but will they kill each other before we find out?
I very much enjoyed this movie, more so than I think most people would. (Hat tip to the names of our two main characters, Solomon and Sophia, both of which have esoteric significance.). It’s the definition of slow horror. Towards the end, it goes a little wacky in a Silent Hill kind of way, but that doesn’t take away too much from the rest of the film. I’ll give this movie Four Stars, well aware that many of you will find that rating inflated. But if you’ve ever wondered what this sort of ritual involves, this movie is for you.
There are few movies that have had more of a obvious impact on the horror genre than TheBlair Witch Project. After its release, found footage became so prevalent as to be cliche, and there was a disco-level backlash against it in the years that followed. But it’s still around, and while big budget horror has gone back to a more traditional format, independent horror continues to rely heavily on the technique. So we come to 1st Summoning.
1st Summoning follows the Blair Witch setup all most too closely. Four amateur filmmakers strike off to a small town in the mountains of Arkansas to investigate a local legend. The story goes that an abandoned warehouse is the site of occult practices going back decades. But as they investigate, they discover that there may be more to the legend than they first believed, and that all of their immortal souls are in danger.
The Blair Witch comparisons are impossible to ignore in this movie. Whether it’s traipsing through the woods, discovering occult items that shouldn’t be there, or just filming when no one else would film, 1st Summoning hasn’t strayed far from the formula. But the movie also suffers from the comparison. The acting is not as good, and at times it’s downright bad. The sound is terrible. Often it’s impossible to make out what anyone is saying. Not that you always want to. The dialogue often feels false and forced. Whereas Blair Witch relied on spontaneous, natural dialogue to advance what was a bare-bones plot, 1st Summoning has a much more complicated story to tell. And in doing so, it overreaches.
Which is not to say that the movie has no redeeming qualities. It has some legitimately creepy moments. When one of our filmmakers investigates a church at night, the tension is real. Right up to the point where it takes it one step too far.
1st Summoning is not a bad movie if you’re looking for something to watch on a October evening. Just don’t expect too much you haven’t seen before, and seen done better.
I have a confession to make—Dawn of the Dead (2004) is one of my favorite horror movies. Seriously, I must have seen it a hundred times. I own the extended DVD version. Every zombie movie has that sequence where the rising begins, but no movie has done it better than Dawn of the Dead. I believe the first 20 or so minutes are the finest example of zombie horror ever put to celluloid. And yes, I like it better than the original.
That’s blasphemy to come folks, and I get it. One of my other favorite horror movies is the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw the remake. It did a few things well—the microsleep bits were neat. But the rest of it was terrible. The makeup, while more realistic, lost so much in the translation. The acting was wooden, the is-he-really-bad element, silly.
But here’s the thing (and this is where I’m going with all this), a bad remake doesn’t cheapen the original. In fact, if anything, it makes one appreciate all the things the original did right. And a good remake can become a classic film in its own right.
And that’s why I find it impossible to get upset with the remake bonanza that we see going on in Hollywood these days. Do I wish studios would put more money behind daring, innovative, and original productions (hello At the Mountains of Madness)? Sure. I’d also like to be on the New York Times bestseller list, but that ain’t happening anytime soon either. So when I hear that they are remaking a classic like Suspiria, I get excited, even if the final product doesn’t necessarily live up to the original.
I guess I’m saying give remakes a chance. And to get you started, here are a few of my favorites.
Horror rarely plays it straight. Few genres lend themselves to allegory, to hidden meanings, to twists than horror. But sometimes, hidden meanings are unintentional, and if we are so inclined, we can see our favorite stories in a new way entirely. Consider the following.
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) is really about mold toxicity.
Netflix’s excellent The Haunting of Hill House is easily one of the best things to happen to horror in the last decade. Brilliantly acted, exquisitely shot, beautifully written, there’s little that matches it in horror on the screen today. But what if Hill House isn’t haunted at all? At least, by nothing unnatural? It’s right in front of our face.
Just look at the walls of the Red Room. They are covered in toxic black mold. And don’t take my word for it–removing the mold is a key plot point of episode 7.
Now here’s the thing about mold; sure it can kill you, but it can drive you crazy, too. What are some of the symptoms? Confusion, difficulty concentrating, disorientation, memory loss, mood swings, irritability, aggression, and yes, hallucinations. In other words, every single thing we see during the series. And the longer you stay in it, the worse it gets. It’s not as sexy as a house that devours souls, but still pretty terrifying if you think about it.
Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street has suffered a psychotic break.
I’m on record for my love of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but what if the whole thing is in Nancy’s head?
A Nightmare on Elm Street leaves something to be desired when explaining what’s going on. Why is this happening now? What gives Freddy the power to enter people’s dreams? And why just Nancy’s friends? Weren’t there other people involved in Freddy’s murder?
None of this hurts the movie, and if anything, too many people feel the need these days to explain every little thing that’s going on in their movies, books, or whatnot. But it does open up some possibilities.
Given what we know, there’s really only one thing that makes sense–this is all part of Nancy’s psychotic breakdown. She’s in a padded room somewhere, experiencing a megalomaniacal fantasy, one where a boogeyman from the neighborhood–legends of which we know are whispered by little girls playing jump rope–has come back to target her and her friends. But only she can overcome him. Only she can defeat him. She is the hero of her own story.
A Head Full of Ghosts is about an actual possession.
The last couple posts have been about debunking the horror of the story, but with A Head Full of Ghosts, we have a chance to do the opposite.
What if Marjorie really was possessed, and what if that possession passed on to Merry when she died? What if everything Merry has told us in the book, at least everything that happened after the spirit was driven from Marjorie, is a lie? After all, it gets awfully cold in that coffee shop there at the end. Could that be the demon, stealing the energy from the room, and inadvertently revealing itself?