My Personal Journey Through Horror, Part III
(You can find Part I and Part II of my journey.)
I am aware that this third and final "Exploring Horror" post will no doubt generate the most negative comments from readers. My thoughts on horror movies from the past 20 years will probably bring to light either my limited exposure to modern horror, my ignorance, or both. Perhaps some of you can help educate me on 21st century horror and expand my comfort (or discomfort) zones.
Let’s first take a quick look at the horror movies I watched from 2000-2009. My Letterboxd diary shows only eight horror movies during that time. I know I saw more than that; I just haven’t yet updated my Letterboxed diary for those years. Still, eight horror movies in a decade is pretty pathetic. You can see at least eight movies just flipping through the channels or streaming platforms…
The movies I saw and documented were:
Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
The Descent (2005)
Red Eye (2005)
The Mist (2007)
Let the Right One In (2008)
The Ruins (2008)
Lake Mungo (2008)
I liked all of those films except The Mist. (That statement alone will get me a lot of comments and ex-followers.) But I only want to take a look at two of these titles. First, my favorite from this list, Bubba Ho-tep.
Bubba Ho-tep is based on a novella by one of America’s national treasures (I am not kidding here), Joe Lansdale. Bruce Campbell plays Sebastian, an elderly resident in an East Texas retirement home who thinks he’s Elvis. Also residing there is an African American man named Jack (Ossie Davis) who believes he’s John F. Kennedy. Together, they attempt to defeat an ancient Egyptian mummy who’s stealing the souls of the retirement home residents. I have odd tastes in comedy (which will come up again in a few moments), but Bubba Ho-tep works for me for many reasons: the writing is excellent, Campbell and Davis are stellar, the and underlying themes of bravery, care and respect for the elderly, are all handled expertly. The film is touching, courageous, and hilarious and holds a special place for me since my mother lived in an assisted living facility (and later a nursing home) for several years. Director Don Coscarelli brought so many components and connections together for a film I absolutely treasure.
Lake Mungo terrified me so badly I’ll never be able to watch it again. After 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns, her family begins to experience strange, unexplained events. As the Palmers discover the truth about Alice’s secret life, the creep factor soars off the charts. The story is told in a documentary-style that involves found footage, which always unnerves me, but the kicker is that I made the huge mistake of watching this movie days after a close family member passed away. When it gets personal, horror films can either help you deal with reality, or take you someplace darker. Lake Mungo did the latter for me, through no fault of its own. It’s also an Australian horror film, the mention of which send chills through my body.
Here are some of the horror movies I’ve watched from the past 10 years, placed in three categories.
I’m not exactly sure what the takeaways are from this chart. I know that many people have highly praised the films in my “No Thanks” column, but I don’t like films that seem to project a feeling of “Look how cool this movie is,” or “Let us show you how much we can gross you out,” and some of these seem to do one or both of those things. I was mostly bored with some of these titles because I knew exactly where they were going, I didn’t care about the characters, they didn’t challenge me to think, and mostly they simply didn’t entertain. The only film from that list I would consider rewatching is The Innkeepers, which I perhaps didn’t give a fair chance. It’s also possible that these films were overhyped. In the future, I just need to ignore the hype and watch the films, maybe even a few years after they’re released to let the hype die down.
Speaking of hype, let’s consider Midsommar. Hereditary (2018) was effective in many ways, largely due to character development, the slow accumulation of information, and an increasing fear of dread. Some of that is present in Midsommar, but not nearly enough. At 148 minutes, the film is far too long, delaying a payoff that seemed inevitable from the get-go, especially for those who’ve seen the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, a far superior film (at least to me). Is it fair to compare those films? No, but you also can’t completely put similar (and better) films out of your mind.
The films in the “Might Watch Again” category were enjoyable up to a point. The one I’d most like to revisit: Beyond the Gates. While Tucker and Dale vs. Evil has a great concept and a good cast, there weren’t any surprises after the first 30 minutes or so. This is also comedy horror, which sometimes works for me and other times doesn’t. Again, I hope to revisit this one someday.
Before we examine the “Liked, Would Watch Again” column, I want to talk about horror films and how to find them. Knowing only about current horror movies through friends and internet searches, I found many potentially good titles unavailable to me. When I did find a few “Best of” horror lists, most of those titles were on Shudder, or on demand. I decided to see what Netflix had when I did a search for “Horror Movies.” This is what came up:
I looked mostly at Letterboxd reviews for several of these films and found almost none that looked promising. (Sweetheart was one of the few.) I decided that horror films must be relatively inexpensive to make and bad horror films even more so. Even reading the descriptions of these movies seemed like the producers were recycling the same ideas over and over. Again, maybe the best stuff is on Shudder and other streaming platforms, or on physical media.
One thing I have learned is that there’s a thriving horror community clearly devoted to physical media. I probably need to find a couple of those people to advise me what I should check out and what I shouldn’t. Another conversation for another time, perhaps. (But if you have suggestions, please, send 'em on.)
Now let’s take a look at the “Liked” column…
The films I enjoyed the most from this list were those I had not heard anything about at the time: Kill List, Jug Face, Bone Tomahawk, November, and Sweetheart. Two of them challenged me in a good way. Kill List starts out as a crime story and ends up as a horror film, a truly horrific one. Similarly, Bone Tomahawk (pictured above) begins as a western and turns into a horror tale (with one scene in particular I’ll never be able to remove from my mind).
November, a black-and-white Estonian film, presented me with an unfamiliar culture containing bizarre visuals, a dark sense of humor, and absolutely gorgeous cinematography. It presents a foreign world that’s totally absorbing and fascinating. Many compare it to Hard to Be a God (2013), which I couldn’t get through.
I know only a couple of people who have seen Jug Face, which I reviewed in 2017. This film creates a more familiar world than that of November, one also based on folklore, but is as just effective in its own way. Sweetheart is a film I reviewed very recently, one I’m surprised more people aren’t watching and talking about on social media.
I don’t know how much any of these films cost to make, but most of them don’t feature big stars, tons of CGI, or anything flashy. They’re just good stories told well. All of them engaged me and filled me with a sense of wonder. Maybe that’s all I really want from any movie. Just tell me a good story.
That’s not to say the the other films in the “Liked” category did not do these things. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us seemed to come out of nowhere with extraordinary power, exceptional entertainment value, and biting social commentary. They tell us something important about ourselves and force us to sit up and take notice, not because they’re telling us they’re good, but because we recognize these movies deal with real issues in a meaningful way. These are films that live up to and exceed the hype surrounding them.
Once again, I’m not sure what my tastes in horror say about me. I believe that good horror films (and horror fiction) are meant to do more than simply scare us in the same way that good science fiction movies (and sf fiction) are intended to do more than just capture our thoughts and imaginations about the future. The best sf works are not about the future, but about the present, touching on issues and concepts we’re dealing with right now. In the same way, good horror films (while often scaring the crap out of us) point to deeper topics including religion, politics, sexuality, family, fear and death (obviously), fear of death, and much more. Does horror help me deal with some of that? Maybe. Or maybe cinematic horror just keeps me entertained while the real horror continues right outside our doors. And maybe that’s good enough.
Photos: Movies and Mania, Frame Rated, Medium, Cnet