THE LAST KNOCK presents: Shriekfest

The Last Knock

Shriekfest celebrated its “Sweet Sixteen” on the first weekend of October in the City of Angeles. A labor of love for founder and director, the talented actress, Denise Gossett, she’s created a fantastic festival for horror and science fiction fans. If you couldn’t make it, Billy Crash did, and Jonny Numb interviews him about the folks, the films, and the frolicking that made the festival rock – and left everyone shrieking throughout the Hollywood hills.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@CatLaCohie @TheDames @BrookeLewisLA @GorillaProducer @CarryOnJohn @RECTORYFILM @KileyEberhardt @badchopsuey2 @MichaelTStrode @RussellEmanuel @girlsNcorpses @Raleigh_Studios @SamesCarolyn @SMByshAuthor @CierraKillerArt @Tammysdragonfly @doloresquintana @PromoteHorror @lloydkaufman @Uber @d_m_elms

And take in the sites…

Shriekfest Denise Gossett Annette Sowell Kiley Eberhardt The Rectory CatLaCohie The Dollface Dames Brooke Lewis Distribber

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Exorcizing Possessions

The Last Knock

As with any other horror sub-genre, tropes abound, and exorcism and possession are no different. How often have we seen the possessed girl or woman bound to a bed to endure torture from demonic forces and patriarchy alike? But we’ll take a closer look at those tales that move beyond copying William Friedkin’s renowned film The Exorcist. Get ready to dive into the bodies (or something like that) of different kinds of possessions and exorcisms, from Session 9 and Oculus, to 1920, The Entity and more. Growling demons and puke fetishists need not apply.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@inthenightdoc @dixiefairy @RSBrzoska @SiaraTyr @TheNightGallery @ValeriePrucha @madbradpotts @OwenMcCuenQuest @aicforever @Israel_Finn @isaacrthorne @RonGizmo @GARVEY66 @machinemeannow @iamgoreblimey @HalloweenQueenW @RealJillyG @seams16 @TheresaSnyder19 @ChadSchimke @SugaryLove09 @Kent_Harper

The Italian All Night Splatterfest 5 – September 3, 2016 – Event Report by Jonny Numb

all-night-splatter-fest-5Gazing at the façade of the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is like being transported through a black-and-white filter and entering a vision of small-town America in the 1950s – something out of a Twilight Zone episode, perhaps. Or one of the theatres the Losers Club frequented in Stephen King’s nostalgic classic, It.

It’s fitting, then, that the Colonial hosts “Blobfest” every summer – in celebration of the gelatinous monster flick from 1958 – because the theatre is one of the locations director Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr. used in the film. Historic, indeed!

The Colonial’s warmly-lit marquee is an inviting beacon nestled within a quaint downtown of shops and restaurants. Even before setting foot inside, it’s easy to tell why this venue has been home to the Italian Splatterfest Film Marathon for five years running.

Walking through the big, welcoming doors consummates the time-warp experience. The lobby has red carpet, a chandelier, and a functional facsimile of an old-school concession stand; flyers for local attractions, businesses, and artisans adorn tables. Reminiscent of York’s Capitol Theatre or Philadelphia’s Trocadero, the Colonial is a 3-story building that has been well-preserved through the years (its website proclaims it “a community treasure,” and I can’t argue that).

A quick scan of the Colonial’s Facebook page shows a revolving-door lineup of current independent films coupled with classics and unconventional cult flicks. This clearly attracts a diverse crowd of film buffs who look to the theatrical experience as something more than going to the multiplex “because it’s there.” (I attended Splatterfest with my best friend, who had attended the screening of Barbarella at the Colonial several months prior.)

That’s what makes it the perfect place to host a mind- and eyelid-testing marathon of Italian horror flicks. The 5-film lineup was all over the place, which lent itself to an interesting viewing experience: first up was Claudio Fragasso’s notorious Troll 2; followed by Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces; Michele Soavi’s contemplative and surreal Cemetery Man; Massimo Dallamano’s dramatic giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (under an alternate title, The School that Couldn’t Scream); and concluding with the gut-munching spectacle of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie.

My friend and I had splurged on a VIP pass that included a catered, Italian-themed buffet prior to the marathon. Cooked with care by Shorty’s Sunflower Café and Truckstop, menu items included homemade meatballs and sausage in red sauce, eggplant chili, and Rigatoni Frizzi. During the two 20-minute intermissions, VIPs were also given snack packs containing items as varied as almonds and olives, cupcakes, mini chicken bruschetta wraps, and chips & salsa.

Oh, and coffee…plenty of coffee. The biggest thanks in order may be to the Splatterfest gods for giving us willing fools the liquid perseverance to plow onward!

In addition to the delicious treats, the Splatterfest showrunners also had raffles for both the VIPs and regular attendees. The prizes included DVDs and Blu-rays from Arrow Video and Blue Underground, among others: T-shirts from Fright-Rags… and the periodic six-pack of beer. I was lucky enough to win a copy of the Cannibal Holocaust soundtrack on vinyl during the pre-show VIP raffle. Nobody had to leave empty-handed, though: for those looking to purchase mementoes of the event, there were great, newspaper-ad-style T-shirts commemorating the 2016 lineup (it bears noting that these sold out before the second intermission).

While I began the marathon with apprehension over whether my mind and body would stay awake for the duration, I made it through with the aforementioned liquid and food assists, not to mention the energy of the crowd. As the films progressed, the logic of the order became clear: the unintentional badness of Troll 2 gave everyone a chance to laugh and groan; but Pieces garnered the night’s greatest guffaws, due to the horrendous Spanish-to-English dialog translation. Cemetery Man’s overt strangeness, genre-jumping, and slick polish produced a mostly quiet viewing experience, which continued with Solange, easily the most serious (and stately-paced) of all the films. By the time Zombie was threaded through the projector, I think most of the audience had succumbed to marathon fatigue, though those in attendance sprung to life to applaud the film’s meatier kills.

Before the lights went down, one of the festival runners requested that those in attendance “laugh, clap, and yell – but don’t do the Mystery Science Theater 3000 thing,” which everybody respected. Say what you will about horror fans, but they enjoy a shared experience as much as anybody else, and are reverent toward the genre they love. And perhaps, with the films being projected in scratched and dirty 35mm prints (in other words, beautiful), everyone realized how special and sacred this event was.

The Colonial Theatre is certainly a community treasure, but Splatterfest is like a second treasure nesting within. For anybody in the central Pennsylvania area, I would highly suggest marking your calendars for next year’s event – where fun and thrills are included in the admission cost.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) spends his days clowning around for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and writes horrific movie reviews by night. His work can also be found at He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.


Take a look at the fantastic Colonial Theatre for horror fans and cinephiles alike, and learn more about Blobfest and next year’s Splatterfest. You can also find them on Twitter,  Facebook and Instagram.

(Splatterfest 5 photo from B Movie News Vault, and Colonial Theatre photo from U Wish U Nu .)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Evil Ed(ucation)

The Last Knock

For many, being in school is like running a gauntlet: puberty, acne, rebelliousness, sometimes raging hormones, bullying, confidence issues, and the coming realization that the outside world’s scary, because once one graduates, shit gets real. But nothing ramps up the anxiety like a crazed killer roaming the halls, or an outbreak of disease, or radiation that mutates. We’ll help you survive the rigor mortis of education horror. Now, open your notebooks and write this at the top of the page: School’s in for Autumn, and you’re dead forever!

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@GerettaGeretta @marthaperez0609 @LynnLynnlowry @DebbieRochon @FreidaSmith4 @kreepazoidkelly @TDJefferson1998 @MrHorror @jerryWalach @IvonnaCadaver @RiverCityOtter @GorillaProducer @CarryOnJohn @good_tidings666 @AFiendOnFilm @dixiefairy @OwenMcCuenQuest @AmandaBergloff @d_m_elms @KeyzKeyzworth @machinemeannow @FriscoKidTX @LoudGreenBird @GTGMcast @Israel_Finn @isaacrthorne @deesnider

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Alien Invasion

The Last Knock

In the 1950s, with the looming Space Race, Project Blue Book, and feared mutations from The Atomic Age, alien invasion films wormed their way into many a theatre to make audiences scream. Yet, even today,  aliens landing to meet and eat continue to be a mainstay in the horror/sci-fi splice. We look at the cool alien invasion films that may haunt you as we explore the sub genre in spacesuits and death rays in hand – just in case. Enjoy the journey from Xtro and Slither, to Altered and They Live – and more of course, because if you see one alien from another planet, you know there are many more ready to make their move.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@TuttleNTexas @KeyzKeyzworth @gothicgourdgirl @23halfFilms @horrorhq @hanalpixan @Talk2Cleo @PiloteXYZ @CPBialois @Sharayah1992 @OwenMcCuenQuest @hviff @RealJillyG @wheelchairjitsu @isaacrthorne @BleedingCritic @AmandaBergloff @cheeseandglory @dixiefairy @BleedingCritic @AmandaBergloff @CheeseAndGlory @d_m_elms @RSBrzoska @GTGMcast @palkodesigns @VicsMovieDen @Israel_Finn @WilliamFriedkin @dvdinfatuation @LoudGreenBird

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Television Channels Horror at the Movies

The Last Knock

Yes, you read that title right. Many a horror film has included television as a horror device. Sure, there’s the phenomenal Videodrome and The Ring, as well as the much loved original Poltergeist, but have you seen the others on our list? Listen in to get those titles! Beyond that, why should an actual television freak us out and give us the heebie-jeebies? Oh, you’ll have to listen in to find that out too.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@liljsez @MelanieMcCurdie @ValeriePrucha @SiaraTyr @JessicaCameron_ @RealJillyG @AFiendOnFilm @LianeMoonRaven @thesecasey @RonGizmo @machinemeannow

31 by Jonny Numb

31-poster-art-1[102 minutes. R. Director: Rob Zombie]

Watching 31 as a Rob Zombie fan is a precarious proposition. I found myself wanting to forgive so much of it; wanted to give it a pass and champion its worth because “the devil’s in the details”; and insist that the premise, while heavily flawed (and frankly lazy), lent itself to an overall atmosphere of visceral terror, and was enough to excuse its shortcomings in character, narrative, and logic.

But in the end, I just couldn’t – Zombie had asked far too much of his audience’s good faith, and delivered a disappointment.

31 isn’t without value; and while it shows an obvious (and perhaps deliberate) regression for the filmmaker, it provides a decent amount of compelling images and affecting moments. Viewers unfamiliar with Zombie’s brand of horror will not be converted, and fans will be left wondering why it isn’t better than what’s onscreen. As I fall into the latter bracket, my score of 31 may rank a little higher in spite of itself; others should gauge their expectations accordingly.

The film has a clincher of an opening: an out-of-focus Doom-Head (Richard Brake, from Zombie’s Halloween II) walks down a corridor, toward the viewer, until his smeared greasepaint face, beady eyes, and blood-smeared mouth dominate the screen, inescapable. Shot in black-and-white, he dispenses a philosophical monologue about the function of clowns in a historical context to his latest victim before dispatching him with an ax. Whereas the Firefly family were all shrill, profane bluster in their conversations, Brake convinces, with chilling authority, that he’s a total psychopath. It’s a promising beginning that devolves into convention far too quickly.

The director’s incalculable debt to Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reaches its saturation point with 31. The film is a veritable freakshow of psychos crafty with switchblades; sad clowns brandishing chainsaws; tutu-wearing giants wielding large, blunt objects; Betty Boop-voiced harlequins skilled with sharp objects; and Nazi midgets as ravenous as rabid dogs. It actually owes just as much – if not more – to Hooper’s own underrated carnival-gone-wrong opus, The Funhouse.

Given Zombie’s proven skills in delivering visceral impact, the effect of 31 somehow comes off as sloppier, jerkier, and less controlled a picture than Hooper’s notoriously sloppy, jerky, and compromised pictures. The tone isn’t wild or anarchic more than just maddeningly dissonant. The excessive grain and desaturated color palate presents a convincing vision of Hell, but also makes the film feel like just another Saw sequel.

The setup is so perfunctory that even Zombie seems bored by it: a group of carnies traveling across Texas are waylaid by a group of sadists on Halloween night, 1976. Presided over by a trio of retirement-age psychos adorned in Victorian Judge garb, the film does poke at the type of sick-fuck bourgeoisie that Cheap Thrills did a better job of satirizing. This side of the story is never really explored beyond a surface level, and the “rules” of the event (try to survive over the course of a 12-hour siege) are so basic that the film never springs forward with anything truly surprising. Furthermore, there is so little development in the early going that the performances – which are actually very good – are locked in a similar fight (to inhabit three-dimensional characters).

The script abides by that repetitive, tried-and-true structure of characters wandering around or waiting to be attacked, fighting twisted psychos, killing or getting killed, and repeating until one or none are left. The Judges (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, and Jane Carr) offer summaries and transitional lead-ins via PA, but how they’re monitoring the developments is never made clear; and their periodic announcements of characters’ odds of survival are illogical and hyperbolic (perhaps indicative of the insanity under the wigs?).

Which segues into the biggest issue plaguing 31: while the content is repulsive, it’s almost fittingly so for Rob Zombie’s defiantly un-PC, white-trash world of scummy and/or destitute characters. While he finds new ways to make viewers squirm in their seats, his meat-grinder aesthetic touches are the true villain of the piece: confusion rules the action scenes, which employ excessive close-ups; while this is irritating, it’s compounded to migraine-inducing lengths with the use of shaky handheld camera. In his Halloween films, this tactic worked in moderation, ramping up the visceral effect of the violence; in 31, the aforementioned tics – compounded even further by the dark, dank, and desaturated color palate – makes the action nearly impossible to follow.

That being said, and continuing with Zombie’s “greatest hits” approach to style, the use of slow motion, freeze frame – always accompanied by a chilling, omniscient push-in – and a convincingly frozen-in-time vision of a hot-as-hell, abandoned-by-God Texas landscape is almost compelling enough to compensate for his more ribald auteur tendencies. There are even moments that sing with a bizarre sort of poetic brilliance – a dual chainsaw duel is literally cut to ribbons, but turns the abrasive industrial noise and an underlying sample of Goblin’s Suspiria score into something rather aptly balletic.

Another positive: Zombie collects his familiar repertory group and plugs them into unlikely roles. As Charly, Sheri Moon Zombie exhibits a physicality that echoes Baby Firefly, but possesses a vulnerability that metamorphoses into hard-bitten toughness that’s like a close-but-no-cigar female corollary to Snake Plissken. Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is the Rob Zombie surrogate, a snaggletoothed jokester who is eventually forced into rationalizing unfathomable, life-or-death scenarios; he’s a relatable character by the end. Perhaps most distinctive among our heroes is Venus (Meg Foster), an unassuming matriarch who possesses equal parts down-to-earth rationality, compassion, and delusion once events start to spiral downward – it’s a great performance (miles from her work in The Lords of Salem and They Live) that, like much of the rest of the ensemble, demands more development. On the villain end, the trio of McDowell, Geeson, and Carr deliver what they can with their vaguely-defined roles, while Elizabeth Daily leaves an impish impression as a cross between Baby Firefly and Harley Quinn. But it’s Brake’s Doom-Head who runs roughshod over the rest of the Rogues’ Gallery – a signature Zombie concoction who does S&M in a manner as queasy, unglamorous, and savage as the Cenobites in Hellraiser.

But overall, 31 is too conventional to transcend beyond its basest intentions. The ending is confusing and contradictory (and appears to have been edited out of order), and the film is too serious in tone to be just a winking homage. The Ginsu editing, gritty visuals, and disjointed narrative – the hallmarks of many horror directors working in the shadow of Zombie – have been too overused to exist solely for their own sake anymore. And with this year’s crop of similarly-themed survival-horror films – Green Room; Don’t Breathe; and Hush – going out of their way to push the genre forward,  feels hopelessly stuck in the 1970s.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) spends his days clowning around for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and writes horrific movie reviews by night. His work can also be found at He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.


(Art via Joblo.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Director of the Damned: Alexandre Aja

The Last Knock

Born in Paris, Alexandre Aja blew open that door to the horror realm with with the gritty High Tension, the feature he wrote and directed in 2003. After the splinters from that door finished rocketing throughout the genre, and woke up studio executives in Hollywood, Aja took on the Hills Have Eyes remake, followed by the Piranha relaunch with more projects to follow.

We look at Aja’s career and directing style, his choice of projects, and the films he has produced, such as the Maniac remake and The Other Side of the Door.

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@zSurvivorLog @TormentOfLaurie @nicolemalonso @OklahomaWard @SamesCarolyn @machinemeannow @RealJillyG @BleedingCritic @AnnThraxx @AFiendOnFilm @LianeMoonRaven @isaacrthorne @MelanieMcCurdie @RonGizmo @TheresaSnyder19 @Talk2Cleo @KeyzKeyzworth @d_m_elms @RSBrzoska @Garvey66 @aicforever @LoudGreenBird @dixiefairy @FriscoKidTX

Ouija: It’s Only A Game by Dee Emm Elms


ouija_07-1024x575Perception isn’t reality.

I know that. You know that. Everyone knows that.

And, yet, we give in to treating our perceptions like reality all the time. It’s almost like it’s a self-indulgent game the vast majority of people play near-constantly with the Universe.

It’s so pervasive, in fact, that some people make careers that depend on making particular perceptions seem like a specific reality. We even ask them to do it! Examples: actors, singers, magicians, “spiritual mediums” … and writers. These are people who rely on convincing the rest of us to look over there and not over here. Talented performers in those fields play that game with other people’s perceptions. They convince the entire world to watch the jangling keys, that the hands behind their backs aren’t up to anything, and that what’s happening in front of our eyes is real – or feels real, at least – even if it’s obviously impossible.

And, a lot of the time, we go along with this. Happily, in fact. We’re willing to play along and take part in the game because these are pleasant fictions. We enjoy them – even when we play games pretending to talk to the dead, to use the example of spirit-mediums. Take the Ouija board. We put our hands on its planchette, and we play at talking to the dead despite all that this could entail. Despite the amazing possibilities of what it might really mean to commune with the dead. Do we think of talking to the great minds lost to time? No. We ask about ourselves. We let the lie of magical thinking overtake us and we play along, and we insist “it’s only a game.”  We’re not going to admit that we’re the ones moving the planchette. It’s that person over there, across from us.

But what if it was real? Who wants to entertain that thought? Almost no one. If it were real, there might be implications. Consequences. We want the real world to be magical, but we don’t want to admit how terrifying a magical world would actually be.

Terror can be giddy, and magic is fun. There’s an immediate motivational reward in playing along – and rewards can be that pervasive. We wave our hands. We specifically dismiss our doubts in order to get the reward. We want to be entertained. We want good movies, or a memorable show, or a sense of calm that our long-lost aunt is tending to her begonias in a benevolent afterlife, instead of rotting in the ground in a nullified state.

Over a lifetime, we train ourselves to indulge these pleasant fictions, and to seek out those rewards to the point that we learn it’s easier to get that reward if we don’t care about looking behind the curtain.

But that’s the precise moment when things really start to get dangerous.

Because you know who else relies on making perception seem like reality? Politicians. Con artists. Murderers. And when they succeed at pulling off their big tricks, it’s far from harmless. It ends up with folks manipulated, bankrupted, or dead.

And, yet, our desire to be entertained pushes through our common sense even then. We keep voting for the same kinds of politicians. We turn con artists into celebrities – once they’ve retired, of course, so we know they won’t get us. And we turn murderers into folk heroes.

That’s how much we want to be entertained. We can put up with anything if you give it a soundtrack and some flashy lights. And that scares me. A lot. Because there are smart people out there, right now, relying on our lack of critical thinking skills to do the world a lot of damage.

Everyone should know that. You should know that. I should know that.

Which is why it’s important for stories to have a point that connects to reality in some way. That stories should never exist in the vacuum of being “just stories.” Stories have to tie in to something real for us to enjoy them, even if it’s on a rudimentary level. Even if it’s basic and fundamental. Because that’s the tether that links us back to the real world, no matter how entertained we are.

Some people dismiss this kind of storytelling as “having an agenda.” But my favorite stories always have agendas.

Oliver Twist is a classically entertaining period novel, but it also exposes the horrors of child labor and the toll of bureaucracy on young lives. And To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just a gripping courtroom thriller; it has much to say about society and the divisions we force upon each other.

And then there’s Cujo, my favorite book of all time.

Cujo is about a woman and a child trying to survive a series of terrifying attacks on them by a diseased dog. But that’s just a metaphor. When I first read Cujo, I got about a third of the way in … and then, suddenly, I realized something important: the story in front of me wasn’t the whole story. Sure, the reader gets the usual Stephen King creep-and-crawl hijinks. But when I looked deeper and really thought about it, I found a much bigger and much more intimate story beneath that surface: A family breaking down and disintegrating. And the theme to that disintegration was vicious, unrelenting abuse. The woman and child weren’t just incidentally “woman” and “child” here; they represented the man-woman-child dynamic of a “typical American family.” The woman and child were being victimized by the enormous, muscled, sick, and vengeful Cujo as a symbol of someone who is part of the family getting sick – outright diseased – and turning on people American culture symbolically identifies as unable to defend themselves. Almost everything in Cujo can be seen as some kind of metaphor. Conflating Tad’s fear of the dark with his anxiety over his often-absent parents; the anti-monster incantation is an IOU as much as anything else. Consider, too, that no matter how hard Donna fights, Tad is dying in that car anyway – because she’s fighting an abstract battle beyond the literal one on the page. Cujo isn’t really the enemy. Time and heat and dehydration are. it’s destruction in slow-motion, by degrees. And consider, too, how the book is obsessed with blending elements of horror and the banal: children’s breakfast cereals that wind up terrifying parents, the monstrous eyes in Tad’s closet that foreshadow his dark fate. They all tie back to undercurrents of evil lurking beneath a placid and pastoral exterior, an American way of life that’s dying in King’s book and our real world as well. It isn’t a rabid dog that’s poisoning the world of the story. It’s us. It’s the way we don’t deal with the fears and anxieties these metaphors represent.

And horror, especially, always needs these metaphors. Because horror, whether as a craft or as an art form, absolutely requires a core of real emotion to work since it’s rooted in real human emotions: dread, unease, and fear. Sure, you can force someone’s instincts to kick in with a loud noise or a transient visual surprise, but that isn’t horror. If it were, we’d call it horror whenever someone dropped a plate at your favorite restaurant. I mean – you jumped, right? But that’s just electricity in your brain. We know that there’s more to horror than just the surprise of unexpected data.

Metaphors are the difference.

Horror uses the most primal symbols of our subconscious language to get at places we don’t visit in conscious awareness. Those plates dropping – that’s the surface.  Adrenaline – that’s just a chemical reaction. The thing we call horror, the thing we love, is so much more than these elements.

Horror as a genre is about our real-life concerns and anxieties, pulled from our own collective subconscious and made manifest by artisans and craftspeople for all to see and to cope with. And that’s key. Horror isn’t just about the unknown being there, or horror would be a dark room and nothing more. Horror is about creating representations of ourselves as we venture into that dark room, and find or lose the courage to turn on the light and see what’s actually in there. It’s about exploring. Coming out on the other side and being okay.

That’s also why my favorite medium in which to experience horror is through film, because that journey can be actively shared by so many people at the same time.

There is nothing like going into a dark theater with other people – a packed house, ideally – and seeing a new horror movie. Not a jaded legion of critics, but an audience who’s there to really experience the horror. To explore those anxieties together in a safe environment. Horror movies are at heart participatory experiences. In most good films, the audience is often relatively quiet. In a good horror movie, in those moments right before the big reveal of what’s lurking on the other side of the curtain, the audience is silent.

But then comes screaming, or laughing, or both. Gasps. Exhalations. And, at the movies, we do it together – and we come out fine on the other side. This is essential to horror because the genre is self-reflective even as it most often addresses the unseen.

Go back to the Ouija board and consider the tropes. Despite the aunt with the begonias, that’s not really what most people are asking Ouija boards. They’re asking about themselves. They’re asking for secrets and truths. “Where’s the family money hidden?” or “Did you love me?” or “Was I responsible for your death?” We care about ourselves more than the dead. We use the board to wake the dead, and check up on them or to ask them for clarity. Consider that. If the Ouija board were real, it would be a tool with which we would ostensibly be using to draw the dead from the commonly-presumed peace of some afterlife to answer questions as we demand that the spirit move a little planchette across a game board.

Now, reverse the pleasant fiction and really consider this from the other side. Could any good come from that? Would we really want to bother people we care about if the board and planchette really had that power? If the pleasant fiction were actually real?

It is this conflict between the pleasant fiction and the horrifying implications of that fiction that’s at the heart of one of my favorite horror movies: Ouija. It takes the paradoxical nature of talking to the dead with a children’s board game, and tells a story that plays out the conflict inherent in those disparate elements by using metaphor in ways that lets the audience question human nature.

Ouija was written by husband-and-wife duo Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, with the latter directing. It tells the story of Laine Morris (Olivia Cooke), a young woman who suffers a terrible loss that drives her to use a Ouija board. Part of what I love about Ouija is that you have to pay attention to really see into the lives of the characters, and I don’t want to take all that away from anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. It’s not about twists and turns and shocks. It’s about the way events impact the characters and the audience, too. There are surprises, but sharing the learning experience with the characters as they delve deeper into the film’s mysteries is more important.

So don’t expect this film to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the film was sharply criticized for being derivative and unoriginal. But many of those critics missed vital material of Ouija that not only make it unique, but something to celebrate in the horror genre.

It’s worth noting that Ouija made $100 million dollars. Now, popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, but there’s something else going on with the movie that helps explain the disconnect between critic and audience, and what many critics missed or didn’t bother to investigate, which contributed to the film’s success, while also tying into the shared experience of horror.

Ouija is principally about observation. About seeing the surface versus seeing the truth. It’s about the fight we all struggle with about accepting those easy answers versus being critical, aware, and attentive in the moment. It’s about the way, when someone kills themselves, we tsk and say, “But she seemed so happy.” It’s about the way we judge by appearance: where beautiful means nice and ugly means horrible. It’s about how we view innocence versus guilt. It’s about where and how we assign blame. It’s about loss and grief.

Grief, especially, factors in as a big part of the story of Ouija in ways we don’t typically see in horror.

Example: in the Nightmare on Elm Street series we see funerals for characters who have died at the hands of Freddy Krueger. These are usually brief vignettes, often serving the purpose of finding the hero character struggling to explain what caused that character’s death so that the adult contingent of the story can express exasperated disbelief.

In Ouija, virtually the entire first half of the film deals with Laine’s grief. And that grief comes back, again and again, and we still experience this through Laine by the time the movie has ended. That’s not just unusual for a horror movie – it’s virtually unheard-of, save The Sixth Sense, Paperhouse, The Orphanage, and The Reflecting Skin.

But that’s not the norm. In horror movies, people die, and the story moves on. As with the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street series, you might get a few scenes of tears, but for the most part you just don’t get to follow characters along as they come to grips with loss. And if you do, there’s usually some gut-wrenching twist where we find out the protagonist caused the loss or was the killer all along or some other such out-of-left-field nonsense.

After all, grief is a difficult emotion. It’s tough to experience, and can be almost as tough to write – let alone write well. But it’s the emotional core of Ouija, the idea of how we cope with loss, and the lengths we’ll go when we want – need – the pain of grief to stop, even if just for a little while.

Since Ouija was written to have this powerful emotional core at the heart of the story, that is why so many critics missed the point of the film. The emotions at play flew past them.

And a big reason for this is that the vast majority of critics are men.

Because here’s the other amazing thing about Ouija – it’s about women.

And I mean ALL about women. Women talking to women. Women engaging with other women. Women fighting other women. This movie owns the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test and owns them both well.

There are men in Ouija, yes, but they are not at the core or heart of the film. It’s not their story.  It’s Laine’s and Debbie’s and Liz’s and Sarah’s and Doris’ and Paulina’s – and that’s a big deal. Heck, even Laine’s absent mother, who isn’t even in the movie, figures significantly into the overall meaning of the story.

And, yes, women have been an important part of the horror genre for a long time, which has been written about extensively. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with this topic, I urge you to Google “horror and feminism” and read all about it.

Ouija isn’t alone in its focus on women, but it is unique in just how strong and important that focus is to the story, with Laine at the center. I praise the cast across the board, but I do want to emphasize that Olivia Cooke gives a reserved performance that never fails to make clear Laine’s feelings for the different women in her life.

I love Ouija for taking the time to do that as well, and that we get to see the film explore concepts of sisterhood, motherhood, women’s friendships, and more. We get to see a wide variety of relationships, from connections to conflicts, between this small cast of characters that matter to women.

But Ouija was scoffed at by critics, like Brian Viner who called the film “… like High School Musical, only with screaming”. Jonathan Romney remarked that “The bumps and thumps are mechanical, the young stars insipid and the otherworldly entity the kids contact is called Doris.” And finally, Alonso Duralde said it was “a bloodless kiddie horror show.”

These critics miss the point. They watched Ouija, but they only saw the surface and it didn’t compute because they didn’t look through their metaphorical planchette. Instead, they saw ghosts, but they didn’t see what the ghosts meant. They saw simple scares, but didn’t think about the emotions behind them. In other words, they only saw the creep-and-crawl. They saw the building blocks, but missed the art and craft of what the blocks had built.

And I think it’s because the movie centers on women. We’re increasingly seeing male critics attack movies centered on women simply because of that fact, and often before the films even come out. Like when a noted Men’s Rights advocate demanded a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road because he felt the film was “feminist propaganda.” Or the innumerable critics who attacked the new Ghostbusters without having seen it simply because women made up the lead roles.

But stories with agendas will keep being made because social commentary is part of storytelling and always has been. It’s why fictional stories get told in the first place. And if you don’t watch horror movies like Ouija with attentive eyes, you’re going to miss out like the critics when they didn’t notice what’s right in front of them.

It’s a shame when you miss out like this because that’s the point of horror: to dare to explore things more deeply than those surface elements. To hold the planchette up to your eye and see what you’re told can’t be seen.

Go ahead. Take a look. What are you afraid of?

It’s only a game – isn’t it?

Crash Analysis Support Team:

Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie still from Movie Pinas.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Author Israel Finn

The Last Knock

When it comes to writing horror fiction, Israel Finn’s concerned about the elements that breathe quality into the genre: story and character, as well as a working knowledge of the writing craft and a respect for language. We discuss Finn’s horror stories and their origins, and the tremendous influence Richard Matheson and Stephen King had on him. There’s more, of course, regarding horror cinema, and maybe most importantly, how Finn became a solid, disciplined writer even though he originally hated reading. Do not miss this excellent and thought provoking interview for writers, readers, and audience members who love horror in all its forms.

You can find Israel Finn on his website on Facebook and on Twitter. Pay a visit to his Amazon page, and do not forget to look at his latest, Dreaming at the Top of My Lungs, the unabridged audible edition.