I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s excellent volume of essays on writing and creativity, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.
I’ve decided to post some provocative and resonant quotes from it, and here’s one to start with:
Every once in a while, a film comes along that is firmly in the tradition of established horror themes while also being completely original. IT FOLLOWS (2014), directed by David Robert Mitchell, is such a film.
Jay (Maika Monroe), a college student, goes on a date with a guy she knows little about, who calls himself Hugh (Jake Weary). They go to a movie but Hugh becomes frightened when Jay tells him she can’t see a girl he’s pointing out to her in the back of the auditorium. They leave and have dinner together.
Later, the two have sex in his car.
Then, shockingly, Hugh chloroforms Jay, and ties her to a wheelchair, taking her to an abandoned building. He doesn’t hurt her, but makes her wait until she sees a woman walking out of the darkness, coming inexorably toward them. Hugh tells Jay to remember what she has seen and believe in it, then takes her away in his car before the woman can reach them.
Hugh explains that by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse he received from an earlier sexual tryst. A mysterious figure will keep walking toward Jay until it can reach her and kill her.
No one else will be able to see it. It will take different forms, sometimes as a stranger, sometimes as someone known to Jay, whatever will allow it to get close to her.
Hugh tells Jay that if it kills her, it will return to seek him out again. That’s why, he insists, she has to pass the curse on to someone else as quickly as possible.
This is the premise of IT FOLLOWS, startlingly simple, haunting and instantly terrifying. The film would seem to draw upon such past “sex equals death” franchises as the HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH films.
And yet it is original and moody, and follows its own dream logic. It resists easy analysis. Some have described IT FOLLOWS (has any movie had a more witty and fitting title?) as a film about walking STDs, but that seems too simple to me.
For once thing, it’s a film about friendship, as Jay turns to her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and former boyfriend Greg (Daniel Zovatto). They prove to be a resourceful and loyal group, all of whom end up risking their lives for Jay.
Jay’s parents and other adults are mostly absent, unable to help because it would be too much to ask them to believe in the unbelievable.
IT FOLLOWS is in part about growing up in the suburbs, and expresses that sad, lonely aspect of modern life that comes from living so near to other people and yet feeling that, sealed away in their houses, they might as well be a million miles away.
There is a strange timelessness to the film, a deliberate effect on the part of director Mitchell as part of his effort to simulate dream logic. Sometimes IT FOLLOWS feels like it’s set in the 70s or 80s. Other clues point to a more contemporary setting.
Critics almost universally praised the film, although some were less impressed with a climactic sequence in which Jay and her friends try to destroy the evil entity by electrocuting it in a pool.
I think the sequence works well and gives the friends a chance to join together to try to turn the tables on their unstoppable foe. It provides some catharsis before an ending that is, I think of necessity, unresolved.
In the end, what is IT FOLLOWS about? Sex? The heavy mantle of becoming a grownup? The ever-present knowledge of our own mortality, always gnawing at us, coming a little closer every day?
There’s been talk of a sequel. Let’s hope it never happens.
IT FOLLOWS is a modern horror masterpiece, and — let’s just say it — a pretty impossible act to follow.
THE CONJURING (2013) is notable not only for being a first-class supernatural drama, but also as the first entry in a series of branching films that would come to be known as “The Conjuring Universe,” currently at seven films and counting.
On its release, THE CONJURING stood alone, based on its own merits which were considerable. Expertly directed by James Wan, it presented a familiar story — basically, a family in a house beset by demonic forces — that recalled key plot elements of such films as THE EXORCIST or THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play loosely fictionalized versions of real-life occult investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
They are called in to help the Perron family, consisting of Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters. Roger is a truck driver who’s frequently on the road.
Squabbling siblings and financial pressures are tough enough to deal with, but the family’s real troubles don’t start until they move into a charming lakeside fixer upper.
It starts quickly. The family dog refuses to enter the new home and is soon found dead. The daughters are assailed in the night by foul smells and violent forces.
An antique music box give glimpses of a ghostly child. A once sealed-off basement traps Carolyn, isolating her from her daughters.
The Warrens arrive and, sympathetic to the family’s plight, begin their investigation. Lorraine’s psychic powers put her at risk of harm from the residing malevolent presence. They also allow her to determine that the home once belonged to a witch named Bathsheba who murdered her own child.
Soon Bathsheba possesses Carolyn, intent on using one of the Perron daughters to repeat the evil cycle.
Unable to wait for the church to authorize an exorcism, Ed, who is not a priest, performs his own off-the-cuff version of the ritual in a desperate attempt to save Carolyn’s soul and the children’s lives.
The particular strength of THE CONJURING is the warmth of the characters. Both the Warrens and the Perrons are presented as likable, decent people. In a homely touch, between his investigative and exorcism work, Ed helps fix the Perrons’ rundown vehicle.
While there’s plenty of dread and terror, the film also helps us feel the strength of the Perron family’s love for each other. In fact, Bathsheba is driven out when Lorraine is able to help Carolyn summon the memory of a rare “perfect” day the family once spent together.
We are left with the feeling that, however destructive and dangerous these evil forces may be, good can still prevail with the help of a little faith and friendship. At least for the time being.
In a side plot, THE CONJURING introduces the doll Annabelle, an object that will be revealed to be a conduit for demonic forces.
Kept secured in a glass case within the Warren home in a locked-off treasure trove of cursed objects and paranormal artifacts, Annabelle is about the creepiest-looking doll ever seen, making a powerful initial impression. (Her story will receive primary focus in ANNABELLE (2014) and other films that tell their own story but are part of the larger Conjuring mythos.)
Rather than build a straight series of sequels, the filmmakers successfully created their own interconnected filmic universe, based upon the semi-fictionalized files of the Warrens’ exploits in demonology.
We hadn’t seen such a thing since Universal teamed up its leading horror characters (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolfman) in films like 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Clearly eying the extraordinarily profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal has in recent years made attempts to launch a new series of interconnected “Dark Universe” monster vehicles, through such films as DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), but so far without significant success.
Legendary Entertainment has done better with a successful series of interconnected “Monsterverse” giant creature films, starting with GODZILLA in 2014 and scheduled to continue with next year’s GODZILLA VS. KONG.
Further entries in the Conjuring saga, including THE CONJURING 3 set for release next year, are in the works.
It’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by since the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). A pioneer in the “found footage” school of horror, this meagerly budgeted independent film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez was a huge hit.
Its success was helped by an innovative online marketing campaign, which generated interest in part by suggesting that the film was an actual documentary, and that the three young filmmakers who worked on it had actually gone missing and were the subjects of police investigation.
Of course, none of that was true. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a total work of fiction, and the filmmakers were played by actors. But the real/unreal confusion created an aura of dread and uncertainty that stirred interest and greatly benefited the film.
In shaky, hand-held footage that was actually shot by the three actors who play the young filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, whose characters bear the same names), we see the trio set out to investigate a local occult legend — the Blair Witch — which is tied to mysterious deaths at different times in the region’s history.
They interview a few locals about the legends, before venturing out into the woods with their video equipment. And that’s when the story really starts.
The film plays effectively on the primal fear of being lost in the wilderness.
For that is what quickly happens to the trio. They camp at night only to hear strange sounds in the dark. They march in circles during the day, unable to find their way back to the road and their car.
They bicker. The map disappears, causing a breakdown in morale, which gets even worse when Mike admits that, in a moment of irrationality, he kicked it into the stream.
They discover strange, cult-like stick figures and symbols left in the trees. A warning? Evidently, the three are not alone.
When Josh disappears and the remaining two seem to hear his distant screams at night, it’s clear things have gone from bad to worse.
Soon they are finding bits of human teeth and other grisly tidbits that may or may not belong to Josh.
Mike and Heather are reduced to a child-like state of pure terror, huddling together in the dark.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is not strong on plot, or on character. If fact, the characters can become grating as they harp at each other, casting blame for their increasingly desperate situation.
Still, the film benefits from the “this is really happening” vibe and the sincere performances of the actors, who apparently were genuinely frightened at points during the shooting.
Other films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and COVERFIELD found new ways to capitalize on the found footage technique.
But THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT got there before them, and almost made going back into the woods as scary as JAWS had made going back into the water.
“I see dead people,” confides Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, sensitive boy who has been greatly burdened by this terrible psychic gift. So traumatized is he by the terrifying apparitions that appear before him, ghosts who do not know they’re dead, that his mother (Toni Collette) has become alarmed and thinks he needs help.
Cole can’t tell this disturbing secret to his mother. Instead he shares it with Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a psychologist who wishes to help the boy, but who at first does not believe him.
Nonetheless, Malcolm is determined to help Cole, partly to make up for a terrible failure Malcolm had with an earlier patient. That patient, a troubled adult who had been treated by Malcolm as a child, broke into Malcolm’s house one night and shot him in front of his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), before turning the gun on himself.
This is the set-up of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), a masterful supernatural drama with compelling characters, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
THE SIXTH SENSE has become famous for its unexpected ending, which I won’t spoil here, and which makes us look back at everything that came before in a different light. Shyamalan has often tried to incorporate such endings into his subsequent films, with varying degrees of success. THE SIXTH SENSE remains his triumph.
The early scenes in which we get to glimpse the dead people who inflict themselves on Cole are eerie and frightening.
But the heart of the film is the solid and touching relationship between Malcolm and Cole. Before he can help Cole, Malcolm has to overcome his own skepticism, and believe in the boy’s claim that he can see the dead, and it’s to the psychologist’s credit that he does so.
After that, Malcolm goes a step further, and finds a way to help Cole deal with this ability. He advises Cole that, instead of running in terror from the dead, Cole must find out what they are seeking, and help them if possible.
By the end, Cole will help Malcolm too, helping him find ways to reach out to his beloved Anna, who has become increasingly distant since the night the patient broke into their house.
Osment and Willis are both superb in their roles, providing performance of considerable emotional power. They are given crucial support by Collette and Williams.
That’s hardly all there is to THE SIXTH SENSE. Shyamalan proves himself to be a sure touch with lighting and creative camera setups, knowing how to instill tension and dread throughout. The film’s setting, Philadelphia, is like a character itself, looking stately, imbued with the sadness of history, and starkly ominous throughout.
And then there’s the ending, which if you’re lucky enough to be completely fooled by it (as I was), delivers a wonderful revelatory wallop.
Despite all the dread and gloom, good things develop by the end, including sure signs of healing in the film’s two broken relationships, that between Cole and his mom, and between Malcolm and Anna.
THE SIXTH SENSE is a ghost story that has brains and heart, in addition to providing a generous helping of skillfully rendered scare scenes.
MALCOLM: Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn’t help that one. And he can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He’s not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn’t like the person that he’s become. They barely speak anymore, they’re like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. ‘Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one, too.
COLE: How does the story end?
MALCOLM: I don’t know.
Directed by Adrian Lyne, JACOB’S LADDER (1990) is a metaphysical horror film about a man, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), whose existence seems to be fractured between several time frames, and perhaps different realities.
We know Jacob served in Vietnam, and we get fragmentary glimpses of he and his platoon members involved in a horrifically violent incident, but we’re not really clear who the attackers are, and who survived and who didn’t.
We know also that he’s a postal worker living in Brooklyn in the 70s with a woman named Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña), and this seems most likely to be the “present” of the narrative.
And yet we see this version of Jacob being tormented by images of a past marriage and the dead son he still yearns for. Amid the shifting layers of narrative, feelings of deep sadness and loss anchor the story.
Normal seeming-sequences give way to startling, surrealistic imagery:
- Jacob finds himself caught in a subway station with seemingly no exit.
- At a party, he glimpses Jezebel seemingly being ravaged by a monstrous apparition.
- Later, figures with demonic faces torture him in a nightmarish hospital.
Danny Aiello appear as a mysteriously sympathetic chiropractor who seems to be treating something deeper than Jacob’s spinal health.
The thing is, it’s hard to write too much about JACOB’S LADDER without giving the game away. To appreciate it, you’ll need a high tolerance for hallucinogenic imagery and a certain amount of patience with metaphysical mysteries that are not tied up in a neat bow.
JACOB’S LADDER is directed with tremendous sophistication and style by Lyne. It’s full of scenes that are both shocking and beautiful. And Robbins gives an appealing performance as an every man whose reality is spectacularly coming apart at the seams.
In JACOB’S LADDER’s otherworldly visions, both angelic and demonic, discerning horror fans will find much to ponder and appreciate.
- JACOB’S LADDER is partly inspired by the film of OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, which is based on a famous story by Ambrose Bierce.
- Roger Ebert wrote that JACOB’S LADDER “evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen.”
- A remake, not seen by this writer, was released in 2019 starring Michael Ealy.
“I see dead people.”
“One two, Freddy’s coming for you…
Three, Four, better lock your door…
Five, Six, grab a crucifix…
Seven, Eight, gonna stay up late…
Nine, Ten, never sleep again!”
What if the world of dreams provided no refuge from our troubles, but was actually the most dangerous place of all? That’s the brilliant conceit behind Wes Craven’s 1984 horror film, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
Meet Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), child killer, burnt to death by a bunch of vigilante parents after he got off on a technicality. Now he returns in the dreams of those parent’s offspring, pursuing and slaughtering innocent teens as they sleep.
One of the targeted teens, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), gets pretty fed up at seeing her friends mysteriously murdered, and strikes back, trying to stop this dreamland demon from taking more lives.
On the film’s release, Krueger quickly emerged as a distinctive rival to such slasher film boogeymen as HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH’s Jason Voorhees.
While the more familiar name “Freddy” would begin to stick in the sequels, here the killer is mostly referred to as Fred, and he’s a leaner, meaner incarnation, a ghoul of few words not given to the playful witticisms that would later define him and help elevate him to the pantheon of beloved horror characters.
How is Krueger different from those unstoppable killing machines, Michael and Jason? Those two remain eternal adolescents, but Krueger represents the adult world, a dark, twisted version of it, full of sins and dark secrets as seen from a teen’s perspective.
Krueger has his own weird sense of style including the filthy red and green striped sweater, the black hat worn at a jaunty angle, and most ominously, his glove adorned with fingertip knives.
Mostly, Fred has personality, and unlike strong silent types like Jason and Freddy, he’ll talk to you. (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy,” he quips, his tongue coming through the phone as Nancy tries to call her boyfriend Glen, played by young unknown Johnny Depp.) And while his wisecracks are kept to a minimum this first time around, artist that he is, he still likes to take a moment to strike terror before serving up the killing blow.
In one instance, he pauses while chasing Nancy’s friend, Tina (Amanda Wyss), so that she can see him slice off a couple of his own fingers. He seems to be saying, if I’m willing to do this to myself, imagine what I’ll do to you.
The surrealistic imagery made possible by the dream sequences provides for some startling visuals and makes the film distinctive from other slasher films of the era.
It must be said, though, that the rules about how you can die in a dream and what you can physically take back with you when you wake up seem loosely defined and arbitrary. This lends the story an “anything goes” vibe which actually works against the sense of peril for the teen characters.
It was a terrific concept nonetheless, and Freddy would return in many sequels and a 2010 remake.
One sequel, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994) imposes a kind of “meta” take on the material, offering Craven, Englund and Langenkamp as real-life film professional versions of themselves, as Freddy tries to leave the prison of being a movie character and bust out into reality.
And, in grand FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN style, FREDDY VS. JASON (2003) brings the two titans of terror together as allies and later as battling demons. (Who will win?)
It’s been a while since we had a new NIGHTMARE film, but it’s probably a good idea to keep the coffee brewing. Dreamland awaits, and so does that unforgettable character, Fred Krueger.
Stephen King was not happy with the changes that were made in the 1980 adaptation of his 1977 novel. But for many horror fans, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, despite its differences from the book, is an unforgettable experience, full of iconic horror imagery, nerve-shattering sequences directed with Kubrick’s trademark glacial elan, and vivid, full throttle performances.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker for a magnificent but secluded mountaintop hotel, the Overlook, while it closes for the winter, hoping the peace and quiet will give him a chance to finish the book he’s writing.
With him are Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd).
One of the departing staff, Overlook cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), meets Danny and senses the boy has a psychic gift similar to his own, which Hallorann calls “the shining.” Hallorann warns Danny that, like burnt toast, bad things can leave traces behind, which Danny might experience due to his “shining” ability.
“I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years,” Halloran tells Danny. “And not all of ’em was good.”
Boy, is that an understatement.
As the family does its best to shore up the hotel against the winter elements, we sense Jack’s mental health slowly unraveling. Is it just the seclusion, or are the malign forces Hallorann hinted at preying upon Jack’s vulnerable mind?
Things go from bad to worse. Although the hotel’s meant to be empty, Danny claims he was attacked by a woman in Room 237. Jack investigates the room, has his own encounter with a beautiful naked woman who transforms into a decayed and cackling corpse, sending Jack running in terror. And yet Jack tells Wendy he saw nothing in the room.
In the visions the hotel presents to Danny, Kubrick provides startling displays of horror imagery, including an elevator overflowing with blood, and two little girls in dainty blue dresses with British accents that greet Danny in a hallway. “Come and play with us, Danny,” they call.
Problem being, these girls were murdered decades ago by their father, who like Jack was caretaker for the hotel. Danny, understandably, reacts in utter terror.
Jack, a recovering alcoholic, soon is drinking again, with the help of a ghostly ballroom complete with bar, and a bartender who helpfully tells him: “Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance.”
It seems the hotel covets Danny and his “shining” ability, and apparently the best way to bring Danny into the hotel’s decadent embrace is to drive Jack to kill him and Wendy.
More unforgettable sequences:
- Wendy makes a horrifying discovery that speaks to Jack’s state of mind when she takes a peek to find out how well his novel’s progressing.
- Wendy uses a baseball bat to defend herself against her increasingly abusive and unhinged husband.
- An axe-wielding Jack pursues Danny through the hotel’s snow-blanketed hedge maze, in an eerily beautiful night sequence.
Detractors of the film will point to Nicholson’s over-the-top performance, which seems to bring Jack to the edge of lunacy too quickly and easily. And like King, many complain that the film lacks true fidelity to the novel.
It’s not a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly a brilliant one. It’s one I can’t pry myself away from if I catch it playing on TV, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
Like burnt toast, THE SHINING lingers.
- THE SHINING received mixed reviews on release, with various critics calling it “ponderous,” “overbearing” and “a crushing disappointment.” The film’s reputation improved gradually over the decades.
- ROOM 237 is a 2012 documentary that explores radical interpretations of the meaning of Kubrick’s film and purports to reveal its hidden messages.
- DOCTOR SLEEP, the film adaptation of King’s sequel to THE SHINING will be released in November 2019.