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Event Report: Monster Mania 36 by Jonny Numb

 

The long-running Monster-Mania Convention knows how to show horror fans a good time. For 3 days every March and August, genre stars and a wide variety of vendors descend upon Cherry Hill, New Jersey (just over the Ben Franklin Bridge) for a celebration of macabre delight.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended at least one MM con per year, and have never been disappointed. Between the guests (usually a mix of new blood and returning fan favorites) and the vendors spread across several rooms, this truly is a holiday for horror-hounds – a combination of celebrity wish-fulfillment and a cornucopia of dazzling material goodies awaiting discovery.

There are certain things that MM newbies should be cognizant of: Even if you get to the Crowne Plaza early, you may want to pack your walking shoes (or something that doesn’t lace up to the thigh). My best friend and I arrived at noon on Saturday, and were greeted by a mile-long backup of vehicles waiting to chance the packed parking lot. As veterans of the con, we had never seen MM this busy.

After an odd winter of wildly fluctuating temperatures (from balmy 60s to well below freezing), the day was a mix of sun and wind, the type of slap-you-in-the-face cold that Calvin’s dad would insist “builds character.” As we walked from our faraway parking spot, we speculated on the reason for the turnout (John Cusack being the headliner guest; our later arrival; the parking lot being taken up by out-of-towners in for the whole weekend) and stopped at a delicious* pit barbecue place for lunch.

Upon passing through the automatic lobby doors of the Crowne Plaza, we faced a scene of (mostly figurative) chaos: the extensive foyer/lounge area was packed with people. On first glance, it was overwhelming and obnoxious – a mass of bodies like something out of a Clive Barker novel – but my excitement over being there eventually trumped a sinking feeling of not enjoying the show on account of being unable to move.

The line for tickets moved with great efficiency (with at least 3 or 4 volunteers keeping on top of things), and good news for everyone whose favored ATMs were on the fritz prior to driving over (like me): the admission table does take credit cards. Following the acquisition of the much-coveted wristband, I progressed to the line for the lobby ATM. While a longer wait (maybe 15 minutes), those around me had a good sense of humor whenever somebody would sincerely ask, “Who are you in line for?”

Following my ATM adventure, I met my friend in the room where a majority of the celebrity guests were gathered. Forming a border along the wall, the center section was a swarm of fans looking to get up close and personal with stars as varied as Oscar winner Louise Fletcher, original “Buffy” Kristy Swanson, guys who played Jason Voorhees (Ted White and C.J. Graham), Lucas and “Toothless” from Stranger Things, and even con mainstay Doug “Pinhead” Bradley (whose line seemed permanently stretched halfway across the room).

We both had clear ideas of who we wanted to meet, and began with the lovely Ashley Bell (from Carnage Park and The Last Exorcism, among others), who possessed an energy and enthusiasm that was infectious. MM 36 was her first proper convention, and she was elated to meet her fans. She had nothing but glowing things to say about her collaboration with director Mickey Keating and co-star Pat Healy in Carnage Park, and told me of Psychopaths’ (another Keating project) April premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. After graciously posing for a picture, she suggested making a phone call to Billy Crash (proprietor of this fine site!) and concluded by pointing me in the direction of Love and Bananas – an elephant documentary she’s involved with (also her Twitter handle). Though I committed a faux pas that I will take to my grave, Miss Bell embodied everything a fan could want in a convention guest – down to earth, energetic, and clearly passionate about the genre.

Years ago, my friend had a great alternative poster from John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in a house fire. Needless to say, he acquired a reprint for MM, which hosted a mini-reunion of the men of Outpost 36 – Thomas Waites (Windows); Peter Maloney (Bennings); con newcomer Wilford Brimley (Blair); and a nearly-missed Richard Masur (Clark).

In addition to first-time convention guests Bell and Brimley, cinematographer Dean Cundey (who shot Carpenter’s most well-remembered films) was also on hand. Keeping within the same universe, synth wizard Alan Howarth was there with a diverse selection of scores, and also closed out Saturday night with a free concert.

At the end of the day, my friend accumulated five signatures for his The Thing poster – not too shabby.

Nestled within the same corner of the room was the wonderful Barbara Crampton, who has worked in (Re-Animator; From Beyond; Castle Freak) and out (various daytime soap operas) of the genre over the years, and has been enjoying a career renaissance as of late, with efforts like You’re Next, We Are Still Here, and Sun Choke expanding her fan base even further. A line of about a dozen waited patiently for her to return from lunch; when she did, she paused to address the fans: “Thank you so much for waiting! I had to get something to eat!” (I suspect that Mrs. Crampton was really visiting the Fountain of Youth – we should all hope to look so amazing at 58.) When it was my turn, my photo choice was a no-brainer – a still from 2015’s Sun Choke, which I told her was her best performance, “Better than Emma Stone in La La Land,” to which she gave a good-natured (yet doubtful) laugh. Mrs. Crampton asked me what I did for a living as we posed for a photo, and revealed that her sister in Vermont was also a civil servant, to which she recited the line that led me to state government: “It’s a steady paycheck, and you get benefits.” ** It was a very human moment that recalled my meeting with Ashley Bell, and another testament to how down-to-earth genre stars can be.

With our usual approach of getting autographs out of the way, we engaged with Phase Two of our MM experience: slowing our pace to a zombie shuffle to be dazzled and lured by the varied wares in the vendors’ area. Everything from horror-based fridge magnets, original art prints, vintage posters, enamel pins, DVDs and Blu-rays, and custom apparel – among many other tempting items – were available in this extensive section.

One of the things I enjoy most about MM is that many vendors are mainstays, so there is a predictability to the layout that is comforting. Troma Films, for instance, takes up permanent residence at a corner table, complete with an alcove for photo ops with Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman, and the Troma Girls.

After collecting some new pins and magnets, I picked up an out-of-print copy of Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (from a consistently reliable used-DVD & Blu-ray vendor), and dropped considerable coin at the Severin Films table (who were giving away free DVD copies of Richard Stanley’s Hardware with multi-disc purchases). My last stop was Vinegar Syndrome, where I complained about how abysmal Massage Parlor Murders is, and made humorous small talk with one of the slightly inebriated guys, who told me, “When the ATM runs out of money, it beams a signal to the guy who has to put money in the ATM” and – regarding his cell-phone’s cracked screen: “I threw it at a guy once, that’s why it’s cracked; you laugh – it’s true!” If the celebrities started my experience off on a high note, this encounter brought MM 36 to an entertaining close.

Some cons champion quantity over quality, but insofar as personality is concerned, MM has the consistent feeling of a curated exhibition – by fans, for fans. Despite the added stress of an overcrowded hotel this time around, even that tension was fleeting in the name of the wonderful community that descended on Cherry Hill for yet another horrifically satisfying weekend.

 

(* = Billy Crash can attest to this.)

(** = CC: Karen “Plate of Shrimp” Rice-Young)

(Photos of Barbara Crampton and Ashley Bell via Twitter.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

From SamSam to Dick Pig by Cat LaCohie

SamSam Whirlwind

It’s been such a rush to hit the new year running, shooting the dark comedy/horror feature film, SamSam, in January 2017. LITERALLY starting the New Year the moment I got back to LA – landing in LAX January 10, 11:30am, having just finished a ten-hour flight from London. I left the airport at 12:30pm, squeezed in a modeling job in Downtown LA from 1:30-3:30pm, and then arrived on set to shoot my first scenes of SamSam at 5pm, diving headfirst into a night shoot and also (surprisingly) the best cure for jet-lag! Welcome home Cat!

SamSam, written and directed by Dallas Lee Blanton is a film compiled from the solicitation of real-life Bad Roommate stories. The essence of the worst of the worst stories, boiled down to create: SamSam – The Worst Roommate Ever.

I was so psyched to be working on this project, not only because the sense of humour in the script matches perfectly with my own, but that this character was not the typical sex bomb, mistress, Bond girl, evil villain, which I’ve previously been typecast to play. I got to portray the “sane voice among the crazies,” which is where my sarcastic, sardonic, “tell it how it is” sense of humour lies. Wearing little-to-no make-up, I was dressed down in most of my scenes wearing workout clothes and sweat pants, playing a sleep deprived, touring nurse (I totally nailed the sleep deprived part!). How freeing to no longer have to give a shit about what I looked like and just … do my job … act! I got to be sarcastically mean to the most annoying valley girl (the eponymous SamSam), eat SO much pizza (!) and drag a large, bloodied tree branch through the LA Abandoned Zoo, culminating with a girl-on-girl, blood-splattered showdown battle!

Yes! Life…Is…Good!

A Character’s Born

Taking on characters against my stereotype seems to be the theme this year, as it was during this shoot in the Abandoned Zoo, where I received a text from a dear old friend, Len Smith, who I hadn’t seen in four years. We had been in the theatre show, Clue together, he playing Colonel Mustard and I playing Miss Scarlet (of course – sex bomb, mistress, evil villain … ahem) and we hadn’t seen each other since.

Len, previously a cartoonist for Disney, had been following a character I’d created on Facebook, “Vixen Duckville” and sent me some artwork relating to the character saying, “Do you want to make her into a TV Show?” My response: “Absolutely, I do!”

We didn’t!

But we will… we got sidetracked!

As most people will, during development, Len asked the famous words, “What other ideas do you have?” Now, (in the words of Shakespeare), “by accident most strange, bountiful fortune,” found me shooting the shit a few days previous with the most amazing human being in this world, Keith Thompson, where when discussing an episode of Black Mirror (go watch this series NOW) and the unfortunate University escapades of David Cameron (please educate yourself on who this is), put the words “Dick” and “Pig” in the same sentence … and of course, Keith and I proceeded to joke about the connotations of this combination.

Hence, all in all, Dick Pig was born: “Bitter, cynical, and nonchalantly nihilistic, Dick Pig devotes his life to doing other’s dirty work for them. Should you find your day being disrespectfully disrupted, it may be that someone out there felt the burning desire to send you a Dick Pig!” Totally not a character in my wheelhouse – but someone who’s words I can still write. An actor is a storyteller, but can only go so far in his or her carnal vehicle. Yes, I can dress down and wear less make-up, but I will never be a male, late 40’s, cartoon pig with a chip on his shoulder about how the world around him is changing and won’t let him be. Dick Pig is the vehicle for me to access a whole other world of storytelling, and his Send A Dick Pig website will, in turn, give YOU the freedom and indeed, the permission, to live vicariously through Dick Pig, saying and doing all the mean, socially unacceptable, politically incorrect things, that, honestly … you really wish you could!

Dick Pig Wants You

“We’re allowing people the guilty pleasure of unabashedly behaving badly.”

Send A Dick Pig will allow users to select specific characters, decide their fate from numerous animated “Dick Pig” escapades, and send to friends and foes via text, email, and social media. A tongue-in-cheek and deliciously devilish alternative to the current array of sickly sweet E-Cards and, hopefully, picking up where Bitstrips left off.

Dick Pig: The Retaliative Telegram, delivering justice one DICK MOVE at a time.

We are currently running an Indiegogo Campaign to help us bring Dick Pig’s website to life, and you can check out the link here: https://igg.me/at/DickPig.

Even if you can’t contribute but love this concept, you can do the following things:

1) Start sending a Dick Pig … NOW!!! We have images on our Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that you are more than welcome to forward to anyone you think would appreciate the concept. (If you tag us and share us of course – don’t be a Dick Pig!).  The more people who know about Dick Pig, the more people will use the website once it’s up and running, and the thing we want most of all is an adoring audience.

 

2) Share the Dick Pig Indiegogo campaign!!!

Tweet us at Twitter

Follow us on Facebook

Gramster-gram us on Instagram

Subscribe to our mailing list for updates and Send a Dick Pig!

 

(Dick Pig art by Len Smith.)

Crash Palace Support Team

 

The multi-talented Cat LaCohie is not only an actress, producer, costume designer, and creative spirit, but a burlesque star known as Vixen DeVille. She also hosts her amazing Burlesque, Body Confidence, and Self-Imagery Discovery Experience and its value cannot be measured. And don’t miss her horror work, and much more, at her IMDb page.

The 2000s: Horror’s Best Decade (Part 2) by Paul J. Williams

Please allow me to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed and spoilers will exist, so please keep that in mind as you read.

And, I’m not a movie historian or expert; I’m just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies. I also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.

LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LATE 2000s: A (Very) Brief Summary

The late 2000s continued the trend of worldwide heartbreak and despair:

Hurricane Katrina ravished the southeast United States and other areas in 2005, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, and the costliest in terms of damage.

The Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 became the U.S.’s deadliest mass shooting, up until the Orlando nightclub massacre in 2016, claiming thirty-two lives.

2008 brought the Great Recession, which was felt around the globe, with many still suffering from its fallout.

Haiti was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 2010, killing over 100,000 of its citizens and leveling scores of buildings, including the Presidential Palace.

LATE 2000s HORROR: Let the Fun Begin

2005 to 2010 gave us some of the best movies in the history of cinema, and especially horror. Low budget, huge budget, foreign and domestic; every demographic is represented and we are lucky to have been alive to catch it all…

A NEW SUBGENRE IS BORN: Torture Porn

Well, admittedly, it’s not my favorite, but we have to talk about it, don’t we? Film critic David Edelstein is credited with coining the term for a new subgenre (sub to the Slasher/Body Horror genres, I suppose) that emerged in the mid-2000s called “torture porn.” These films emphasized nudity, mutilation, and sadism, and though movies associated with this subgenre are not personal preferences, I can’t not mention them.

Eli Roth wrote and directed 2005’s Hostel, a story about a group of American college students traveling across eastern Europe, and historically, the first movie assigned to the torture-porn subgenre. These poor vacationers become kidnapped and sold off to be systematically tortured and killed. Over the years, proponents of this movie have tried to extract bigger meanings from it, most notably the socioeconomic implications and the consequences of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. Maybe; who knows? Quentin Tarantino, who was probably tangential to the production at best, smartly had his name plastered all over the promotion of the film that, despite mixed reviews, grossed over $80 million on a $5 million budget, and spawned two sequels: the second again being written and directed by Roth, who would then sit the third one out.

What followed was filmmakers trying more and more to gross out audiences:

Australia’s 2005’s Wolf Creek, using the tried-and-true promotion of being “based on a true story” has a Crocodile Dundee-type hunt and kill three backpackers in the outback. It received mixed reviews from critics, but was a hit at the box office, grossing $28 million on a $1 million budget. Wolf Creek 2 followed in 2013, but like most sequels, didn’t live up to the first film.

Turistas was released in 2006. This time harassing backpackers in Brazil, the film was received poorly by critics, but made a profit in ticket sales.

Captivity, from 2007, tried, mostly in vain, to ride the wave of success of Hostel and Saw, and ultimately grossed $11 million.

The Collector, released in 2009 from Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston, winners of Project Greenlight a thousand years ago, is a distant cousin of Saw, and now considered a cult classic. It tripled its budget, despite negative reviews, and spawned the sequel: The Collection in 2012.

ELI ROTH

With a dearth of worthwhile horror, or any horror at all, really, in the late 1990s, the early 2000s was up for grabs for anyone looking to be the next horror maestro. Love him or hate him, Eli Roth was the someone who stepped up. Starting in 2002 with Cabin Fever, which has since been remade (more on that nonsense later), Roth followed in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project with its online marketing, showed everyone who his influences are, became a hit with audiences, grossed $30 million on a $1.5 million budget, and even managed to get a lot of good reviews.

He followed with the aforementioned Hostel in 2005, also launching the “torture-porn” subgenre, and followed with Hostel II in 2007.

Since then, he’s mostly worn the Producer’s hat, being the man behind such films as The Last Exorcism and The Sacrament, and dabbles in acting, as well, with his most notable performance of him chewing the scenery as “The Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 fantasy, Inglorious Basterds.

His next film looks to be a departure from horror, remaking the 1974 Charles Bronson classis, Death Wish.

LOOK WHAT I FOUND: Another New Sub-genre is Born

Obviously kicking off the modern “found-footage” subgenre is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (shout-outs recognizing Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast), but what’s odd is that it’ll take years before another recognizable film of this nature is released.

Fred Vogel starts his August Underground “franchise” in 2001, but these are extreme genre films only a select few can sit through.

Zero Day, from 2003, though not a horror, dramatizes the Columbine massacre of 1999.

Septem8er Tapes, also not a horror, was released in 2004, and makes use of every penny of its estimated $30,000 budget, and puts a War on Terror spin on the found-footage subgenre.

The U.K.’s The Last Horror Movie from 2003 is a very disturbing movie, sort of like the found-footage version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

2007’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes from brothers, John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, has become more about whether people are ever going to see it or not than about the movie itself, and in some ways, this has given more longevity to the film than if it was widely released as originally planned in 2007. First, I’ve seen it, and surprisingly, it lives up to the hype: it’s very disturbing and odd. Second, when is this ever going to be released permanently to the masses? Hell if I know, but it’d probably be the worst thing for it.

What starts off, what I guess we can call the postmodern “found-footage” frenzy, is Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. It originally premiered in 2007, then after a few ending changes suggested by Hollywood, and a fake story about Steven Spielberg being scared shitless of it, and we get the 2009 wide release, which you most likely viewed. If you don’t know what follows, then you must not be a horror fan: almost $200 million at the box office and, count them, six sequels to date. Not surprisingly, it has (almost) all the same ingredients that made Blair Witch a phenomenon: D.I.Y. filming and editing on a miniscule budget, amateur actors, more happening in the viewer’s mind than on screen, effective online and word-of-mouth marketing, and ultimately, perfect timing for a movie like this to come out.

[REC] is a 2007 Spanish found-footage/zombie film that shows just how much “fun” these types of movies can be. It doesn’t take long getting into the action with our attractive news reporter, watching the craziest 75 minutes of her life. [REC] became a huge hit and spawned a franchise.

Lake Mungo, from Australia, has several release dates between 2009 and 2010, but is ultimately a 2008 movie. More like one of these true-crime documentaries that are so popular today, the movie’s presented with interviews, news footage, etc. Ultimately a story about a family’s grief, Lake Mungo is very effective and downright creepy at times. I do see it listed on various “Top 10” lists every now and again, but I acknowledge it’s a divisive film and, admittedly, it’s a personal favorite.

Quarantine is the 2008 American remake of [REC] by the aforementioned Dowdle Brothers, and in my opinion, might actually be better. One thing I like about the movie is right from the beginning they shed the idea that this is actually real footage, using actors, including Jennifer Carpenter in the lead, that you have seen before. Just like [REC], we jump right into the action, following the reporter covering a local firehouse in L.A. Jump scares, creepy visuals, and claustrophobia follow, and it’s all a blast.

2008’s Cloverfield is what happens when you make a found-footage movie, which historically are independent and very low budget, by a Hollywood studio on a $170 million budget. A recipe for disaster, no? Nope. What you get is one of the best monster movies in horror cinema history. (Yeah, I said it.) J.J. Abrams and Co. make us hang out with a party of yuppies for a full half-hour before anything happens, but once it does, what a ride. Showing only glimpses of the monster throughout, he (or she) finally gets their close-up at the end (literally). A sequel has been talked about ever since, but it seems 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and the upcoming 2017 movie God’s Particle, described as being in the “Cloverfield universe” is as close as we’re going to get…and that’s fine with me.

The Last Exorcism, produced by the aforementioned Eli Roth, is a 2010 “young girl possessed by a demon” movie presented in the same way as Lake Mungo in “documentary” format. It starts off great: perfectly casted and acted by Patrick Fabian as Cotton, a fraudulent Reverend, and Ashley Bell, as the aforementioned young girl. For me, the ending soured the movie, but it was received well by critics and movie-goers.

Though, not technically a horror, I feel I would be remiss not to mention 2010’s Troll Hunter from Norway. Another “documentary” where we follow some poor documentarians who wind up finding way more than they bargained for, the movie is a real fun take on Norwegian culture and folktales.

ROB ZOMBIE

Always a horror movie fan, musician, and former front-man of the band White Zombie, Rob Zombie started his filmmaking career with House of 1000 Corpses. Filmed in 2000, this movie would go on an odyssey before being theatrically released in 2003, after being acquired and dumped by one distribution company after another. The concern, not surprisingly, the content and potential for an NC-17 rating. Once released, you can guess the reception: critically panned, but it did manage to make a profit, most likely due to loyal Zombie and horror genre fans, and people finally getting to see a movie with so much mystique surrounding it over the previous few years.

Lions Gate Entertainment, seeing the financial potential they had with Zombie, quickly approached him inquiring about a sequel to Corpses. What follows is what is commonly regarded as Zombie’s best movie in his filmography, with Lords of Salem in the running as well: 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. More grounded and visceral than Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects follows the Firefly Family who are on the run from just as crazy Sheriff Wydell. More successful with critics than Corpses and just as profitable in the box office.

When the Powers-That-Be decided it was time to remake one of the best horror movies of all time, they chose Rob Zombie in 2007 to do his take on John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, Halloween, and boy did he change things up. Despite my opinion about the movie (I prefer the original, to say the least), the film was a smash-hit with audiences and prompted the obligatory sequel in 2009, which fared far worse this time with both movie-goers and critics.

Zombie has remained in “the business” ever since, mostly with horror, but it seems he’s eager to reach out to other genres to write and direct.

KNOCK, KNOCK… Anybody Home?

Nobody was safe anywhere during the 2000s, and if you think locking yourself inside your house was the most secure place to be, you’d be dead wrong. The home invasion subgenre broke out big during this decade. Here are some victims:

2002 starts us off with Panic Room, though not exactly a horror. The famed David Fincher directs a stellar cast in this tale of a single mom, Jodie Foster, who protects herself and her daughter, the new Kristen Stewart, from a band of thieves. Ultimately not one of Fincher’s better films, the movie examines many themes and is still worth a watch.

Ils, the 2006 movie also listed in the New French Extremism category, opens with a great, Scream-esque prologue, then goes on to set-up a simple story of a young couple besieged in their huge home by a clique of criminals, who once their identities are revealed, turns out to have a pretty cool ending.

Funny Games is Michael Haneke’s 2007 American shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian movie, that does more than tell a terrifying home-invasion story, it plays with the audience. Characters break the fourth-wall, the movie rewinds to replay a scene giving it a different outcome, and ultimately, Mr. Haneke asks: If you think this movie is too nihilistic, then at what point did you stop watching?

2007’s Inside, also listed in the New French Extremism section, is a bloody revenge tale set on Christmas Eve as a very pregnant single mother fends off an intruder all night. The end reveal when the antagonist’s motivations are exposed is a really cool twist.

Strangers is a 2008 movie by first-time screenwriter/director Bryan Bertino, which also tells a depressing story of a young couple stalked and terrorized in their home for…well, just because. Taking inspiration from John Carpenter, the film is very effective and despite mixed reviews, grossed a sizable profit on its $9 million budget. Bertino was one of the rare spec-script stories of the 2000s, but oddly he has remained relatively dormant in the years since.

While, for whatever reason, Bertino did not produce any more low budget horrors for a while, other film-makers like himself sure did, which is where we’ll pick-up next time with Part 3 of 2000’s Horror…

(Photo of Lake Mungo from Pinterest.)

Crash Palace Support Team

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Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and his short films have appeared in numerous festivals. Although Paul’s the man behind Rolling Dark Productions, he’s also a detective in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul’s a Medal of Honor recipient from the City of Newark for actions on December 14, 2002

“I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” – SPLIT (2017) from Jonny Numb

[118 minutes. PG-13. Director: M. Night Shyamalan]

***This review contains SPOILERS***

While obvious, it bears repeating: M. Night Shyamalan hit hard with the Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense in 1999. With the auteur put on a high pedestal so early in his career, it’s easy to imagine his subsequent films getting tripped up in a game of matching – if not exceeding – what came before. I can’t speak to Shyamalan’s post-Signs output, but Split bears the hallmarks of a director making a desperate bid to recapture his former glory.

But maybe “desperate” isn’t the right word, as Split will have bypassed the $100-million mark (on a $10 million budget, no less) by the time this review is published.

In a role that a younger Johnny Depp might have jumped at, James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with “23 distinct personalities,” who kidnaps a trio of teenage girls – Boss Mean Girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Middle Manager Mean Girl Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Obligatory Basket Case Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) – because…well, that would be giving it away.

But wait a second…is it possible to spoil something that’s already rotten? Now there’s a paradox for ya.

Considering how well-crafted The Sixth Sense was – lining up characters and events for unexpectedly touching plot crescendos – Split is a special kind of disaster to behold: from concept to execution to the seemingly endless wait for the third-act twist, it’s afflicted by a throw-shit-against-the-wall approach that not only drastically diminishes its thriller potential, but comes off as callous in its depiction of mental illness.

In the same year as The Sixth Sense, Fight Club garnered controversy not only for its “depiction of anti-social behavior” (per the MPAA content descriptor), but its use of a similar plot twist. Unlike Split, however, Fight Club justified its madness as a reflection of a greater cultural malaise, with a character who acknowledged his complicity in the twisted world he’d (semi-consciously) created. Director David Fincher didn’t make allowances or justifications for the behavior on display, and, by rejecting Hollywood convention, the film became a generational firebrand – infuriating complacent, middle-aged critics while appealing to youth on the cusp of adult responsibility.

As thrillers go, Split sets up a game with essential pieces missing…and a board that’s been cut in half. If there’s any subtext worthy of greater analysis, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a wide-release movie with such goggle-eyed, baffled performances (the teenage cast gets the worst of it, though Betty Buckley’s psychiatrist doesn’t fare much better). Adding insult to injury, Shyamalan ogles the partially-clad females in a manner that borders on the “windowless van” club.

There are moments where our girls, trapped in McAvoy’s subterranean house of horrors, suggest rushing their captor, but are more than willing to sit (again, goggle-eyed) while he does his Johnny Depp thing. Also not-good: how the two Mean Girls insist that Basket Case is “one of them” despite their ostracizing her at a birthday party. Sloppy.

For a film that includes plot points hinging on the one-two punch of child molestation and murder, Shyamalan seems oblivious to how tasteless this story really is, but goes about business in an inexplicably cavalier (and inexplicably PG-13) manner. As long as you don’t show the bad thing happening, it’s okay. Yeesh.

I never thought I’d see the day when Peter Jackson’s woefully misguided The Lovely Bones came off as a tasteful-by-comparison rendering of similar themes, but here we are.

Just as offensive is Shyamalan’s depiction of mental illness. The trailer for Split – leaning heavily on McAvoy’s persona­-swapping – put a bothersome twist in my guts, and what the film does with this, in addition to being incredibly confusing, also sends messages that are deadly mixed. I can’t in good conscience praise McAvoy’s performance, which amounts to an aimless string of vignettes (including – god help us – a hip-hop dance number) left untethered by a story that has no fucking clue what it wants to be. By the end, the only thing made clear is that McAvoy was cast for a purely commercial reason (tying in to his X-Men tenure). And the closing decree – that “damaged” people are the most “pure” of all – carries no consolation and even less truth, especially after McAvoy’s ultimate personality goes on a kill-crazy rampage. By that point, Shyamalan’s thoroughly wrongheaded approach has also equated the mentally ill with zoo animals – dangerous, and only suited to cages. Toxic.

Talk about a movie that would please the current Administration. Maybe that’s why Split is doing so well with audiences: its pervasive ineptitude and zero-tolerance policy against The Other is just what Trump’s cronies are seeking in their quest to “make America great again.”

1 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Split photo from PopSugar.)

Sinners in the Hands of an Indifferent God – CARNAGE PARK (2016) by Jonny Numb

(Author’s Note: this article is not intended as an endorsement or condemnation of Christian belief. Mentions of God and Christ will defer to the pronoun “he.”)

This review contains SPOILERS.

“The coin don’t have no say.” – Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), No Country for Old Men

There’s a scene following a bank heist that’s ripped straight out of Reservoir Dogs.

There’s opening narration by loony loner Wyatt (Pat Healy) that waxes moral and existential, not unlike the opening narration by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men.

There’s an attention to production design and gritty staging that winks at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (the gore also shows a flair for traditional, in-camera FX over CGI).

With Carnage Park, Mickey Keating is going for his Tarantino homage (or, maybe more accurately, the films that Tarantino homages). Granted, the indie-movie landscape never really stopped being littered with posers trying – and almost always failing – to craft their own unique Reservoir Dogs (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, anyone?). So to pay tribute to a film that’s a cornerstone of savvy-cool-ironic-iconic was bound to struggle against a wave of preexisting imitators and the challenge of extracting something unique from a well-worn premise.

For what it’s worth – and to give Carnage’s critics some credit – the film doesn’t touch its influences. It’s also a fair distance from the aesthetic and narrative complexity of Darling, Keating’s previous film.

That being said, it’s still a worthwhile ride…but not for the (visceral) reasons genre fans will expect.

The originality that emerges from all of Carnage’s borrowed parts is curiously existential (in the Cormac McCarthy, No Country vein): if there is an omniscient “God” monitoring creation, where and when is his role in intervention? Does he owe humankind anything? And how can he ignore a world in which awful things happen with disturbing regularity?

Keating is too tasteful a filmmaker to allow his concept to unravel into glorified sadism (see Rob Zombie’s similarly-themed 31), and there is a bizarre innocence at the heart of Carnage: when financially desperate farm girl Vivian (Ashley Bell – The Last Exorcism) is abducted by Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hebert – Gangster Squad) following a botched bank robbery, we are given the immediate impression that both characters are in over their heads. Vivian is resourceful and assertive, while Joe is all violent swagger; both are oblivious to their roles in the world outside of their immediate circumstances, which is perhaps why, once the violence of the situation relents, they are able to share in an eerily even-toned dialog.

From the initial panoramic montage of open hills and sky, Keating establishes a sense of the existential: yet for all the open space, Carnage Park never seems to wander beyond its tight, character-based intimacy. (Given the grandiose title, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the violence is doled out with erratically-paced deliberation.) Does this require a suspension of disbelief in that Wyatt could preside over miles and miles of desolate terrain? Sure. But it also brings some intriguing observations to the surface.

The skyline – seen mostly from a “puny mortal staring upward” POV – is punctuated by bright light pressing through clusters of clouds. Characters’ pleas for rescue fall on deaf ears, suggesting an omniscient sadism that correlates to the homicidal mischief perpetrated by Wyatt (who intones, right at the beginning: “Out here, God don’t play favorites”). One early scene in particular – of Vivian tumbling out of a car, handcuffed to a very dead Scorpion Joe – glares from an overhead POV as she cries for help (to no avail). Vivian is our conduit for empathy, but her efforts to assist random victims (played by Darby Stanchfield and Larry Fessenden) are either thwarted by an off-screen Wyatt, or left behind and forgotten in the name of her own survival. She can’t save the family farm, or anybody else; she’s in a no-win situation where self-preservation takes precedence over altruism.

Complementing the Alice in Wonderland tone Keating establishes early on, the film’s idiosyncrasies possess a randomness that still feels reflective of the real world. Instead of devolving into a Saw-styled funhouse of torture devices, the landscape of Carnage Park is a string of mournful monuments to death and decay (including a nod to Christ’s crucifixion). This is reflective of Wyatt’s opening narration about the government closing mental institutions and leaving veterans damaged from war (mentally and otherwise) to wither on the vine. As a “fuck you” to the bureaucracy, his dried-up chunk of the American Dream being used as the equivalent of General Zaroff’s playground isn’t off base.

Even the spray-painted “God’s Country” sign on the gate of Wyatt’s property is presented without irony, and establishes him as judge, jury, and executioner of this contained world. The fact that his sheriff brother, John (Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), is not only complicit in covering up his crimes, but also intimidated and emasculated in his homicidal brother’s presence, is a testament to their shared psychosis.

At the bridge between the second and third act, Vivian finds herself in a shack (adorned with macabre, homemade wind chimes and lawn ornaments – another Texas Chainsaw echo) that, for all intents and purposes, is Wyatt’s command center. She’s taunted via CB radio, and when she asks, “Who are you?” the straightness with which Wyatt answers, “Me? I’m nobody” delivers a chill on par with the everywhere-at-all-times presence he’s exhibited up to that point. Perhaps it’s a reach, but if Christ or Satan visited planet Earth today (in the most literal sense), it makes a certain amount of sense that they would walk among humanity incognito, rather than drawing excessive attention to themselves.

I’m not sure I can rationalize Wyatt as an analogue for Christ or Satan – Keating’s treatment of the character and Healy’s performance renders him almost innocuous –  but he judges his fellow humans based on his own perception (the film is light on explicit psychological insight). Does Scorpion Joe, with all his macho bluster, get a bullet to the head because of his lack of humility in the presence of someone – or something – greater than him? What of Wyatt’s absurd kindness (“HOW YA DOIN’?”) when he first meets Vivian? And what, especially, of Vivian getting the drop on Wyatt midway through, only for him to seemingly rise from the dead? “God’s Country,” indeed…

In an interesting aesthetic choice, Keating chooses to obscure Wyatt with a gasmask during the last half of the film, which raises the question: if John was covering up his actions, then who is to say that Wyatt also didn’t have other men prowling the hills? It seems unlikely that a solo sniper could orchestrate all of the sinister tableaus on display (including a camouflaged vehicle dumping-ground), given the area that would need to be covered. Also noteworthy: outside of the scene at the gate, there’s no definitive indicator as to where Wyatt’s land begins or ends; another subtle allusion to nature’s arbitrary boundaries, as well as the intangible, subjective spiritual boundaries that distance God from humankind.

An explanation that dances around the edges of Carnage Park is the possibility that Vivian, not unlike Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has been so driven to madness that her POV is unreliable by the end. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold much weight, as the film is initiated by Wyatt’s narration (and his murder of an unrelated victim). Nonetheless, I love Keating’s approach to the ending, which excises the deus ex machina of the Black Marina savior from Texas Chainsaw in favor of something as simple as a literal light at the end of a tunnel. While this may fluster some viewers, I found it perfect – in a place where God doesn’t play favorites, it’s up to us to find our way out of dire situations, whether self-imposed or foisted upon us.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com.  He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Carnage Park photo from AV Club.)

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016) by Dee Emm Elms

[104 minutes. Not rated. Ireland/UK. Director: Billy O’Brien]

Understanding other people doesn’t just take skill. It takes effort. I should know: as an autistic person, I struggle mightily to understand other people. I can’t tell what someone is feeling from reading facial expressions or body language, the way most people can. But, at the same time, this puts me in a unique position to see what people do from an outsider’s perspective.

And I think that’s a part of why the film I Am Not A Serial Killer had such a profound impact on me.

Of course, we all bring elements from ourselves into the media we consume. But in this case, there’s more going on than that. The comparisons of what we are and what we consume and how the two things are linked together is a central theme in the movie.

I Am Not A Serial Killer centers primarily around telling us the story of a young man named John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records). The surname Cleaver immediately evokes the squeaky-clean white Americana of Beaver Cleaver, the central character of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver.” But it also evokes John Wayne Gacy, a real-life killer notorious for having been a would-be performing clown. But there’s less of a paradox at work than you might think because that contrast is central to who John Wayne Cleaver is: a young man who may be a sociopath – who not only recognizes that he has within him the capacity to be a serial killer, but is actively working not to be one.

That’s not a new premise. We’ve seen it in media for decades, up to and including recent television shows like “Dexter” and “Hannibal.” But these shows tend to treat serial murder like a drug-addiction, where a character’s thoughts tend to dwell on violent fantasies or the act of trying to resist giving in to what these stories present as some intensely-pleasurable urge the hero must keep secret. And it makes an unpleasant kind of sense for the writers to do this; it allows them the chance to engage in all the most lurid elements and excesses while still proclaiming that their heroes have a moral compass.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that in a number of ways.

Even though the book (written by Dan Wells) on which the film is based is told in the first-person, film director Billy O’Brien wisely pulls back from hovering over Max’s shoulder in terms of storytelling. He instead gives us the broader perspective of an observer. Yes, we focus mostly on John, but we don’t get to hear what’s going on in John’s head. We don’t get the lurid details of John’s struggle. We must instead rely on the performances, and Max Records fulfills this with a blend of subdued delivery and sometimes-surprising non-verbal choices. There’s a deliberate nature to Max’s work as John that shows us just the faintest glimpses of the fight Max is waging to keep his good-natured heart.

But it isn’t just Max who carries the film. Karl Geary, as John’s therapist, Dr. Neblin, provides a welcome change from the inspirational advisor such a role usually entails. Geary smartly depicts Neblin as a thoughtful man trying to help his young patient figure out a path to success, but also as a man who isn’t afraid to confront the fact they’re learning and guessing and failing as they go along, together. Likewise, Laura Fraser’s portrayal of John’s mother, April, plays perfectly off of Max’s acting choices as we struggle to see into her conflict as her already-fragile faith in John’s willpower is put to the test. And Christopher Lloyd displays an agile balance between a wide variety of deep but subdued emotional states as John’s neighbor Crowley; Christopher and Max don’t actually share a great deal of screen-time together throughout the film’s runtime, but the moments when they are in the same place resonate with the skill of two actors who know how to hold back and still provide information to the audience. It’s these moments, when both of them are together that the film is at it’s most intense and impactful.

And what is that theme, exactly? Well, I contend that what the movie’s story tells us is that we sometimes need someone from the outside to tell us when things aren’t what they appear to be. That we need unusual perspectives to keep the world together. To keep us safe. To keep us alive.

We need someone who can recognize that there can be menace behind a smile. That sometimes love can look ferocious or angry or desperate. That a killer can be the man at the back of the church ceremony. That love can lead us to do terrible things, just as much as the supposed absence of love. That just because our own feelings don’t match what other people tell us those feelings are supposed to be like doesn’t mean that what we’re feeling is wrong or irrelevant. But most of all, sometimes the people who seem to act in strange or peculiar ways are the good guys, and sometimes the most pleasant people are the bad guys … while also simultaneously telling us that it’s not so easy as good guys and bad guys.

The theme of complicated heroism and villainy isn’t new either – but making it sincere and emotional is very uncommon. Usually, stories that depict “shades of grey” come off as cynical or hamfisted. Worse, they often paint the world as a place where caring or decency are “old-fashioned” ideals. That it’s somehow unevolved of us as human beings to believe in idealism.

I Am Not A Serial Killer isn’t like that.

Instead, it takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to its morality. It says that there are good people, and monsters, and that there’s a difference. The victories and defeats it depicts are rooted in the idea of people making moral choices – in a way that earns the last name Cleaver as more than a horror-movie/sitcom mash-up pun. This is a film that isn’t afraid to teach moral lessons in an up-front out-loud way. And I love it for being more than, say, the cynically-hateful moral flatline of works like Mark Millar’s Wanted or Kick-Ass – examples of films that deal with similar issues but come to “whatever, it’s all on you” non-conclusions.

I Am Not A Serial Killer makes statements about looking deeply into other people to find what matters in them.  And no matter who we are or how we think, that’s something we all need to do a lot more of in life.

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 sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out.  Dee may be contacted at her email sidlingsnovel@gmail.com, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.

(Movie still from Uncrate. Dee Emm Elms photo via Dee Emm Elms.)

Before You Buy the DVD: BLAIR WITCH (2016) by Jonny Numb

[89 minutes. R. Director: Adam Wingard]

Summer, 2016. I took my seat in the theater and furrowed my brow at a trailer that seemed familiar. Kids in the woods. Handheld POV. Oops, someone dropped the camera! Blurbs from high-profile horror sites superimposed over panoramic aerial views of dense forests. Ominous, droning music.

The title? The Woods. Hmmm.

The connection to The Blair Witch Project was so transparent that part of me wouldn’t have been surprised had it been the type of De Palma-style homage that’s been all the rage with the horror kids these days. When it turned out to be a “surprise” sequel to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 original (under the more succinct Blair Witch), it somehow lacked the cleverness of the grassroots campaign those filmmakers committed themselves to in the early days of the Internet, fooling a good chunk of the public in the process.

So, is Blair Witch an actual sequel? As handled by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (whose erratic genre track record consists of A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, and The Guest), the seeds are there, but the setup is merely an excuse to poorly reconstruct the beats of the original.

But hey: at least the technology’s been upgraded (and will look outdated in 5 years)! And there’s plenty of unnatural-seeming shaky-cam! So, yay! By the way…bitchin’ drone, man!

I’ve said it before, but 2016 has been a year of films pushing the horror genre forward. Granted, even the best efforts have borrowed parts, but are smart in how they reconfigure them into fluid fear generators. Go figure that the critically adored Wingard and the reliable Rob Zombie have delivered two of the biggest disappointments of the year, for the express reason that they so cynically fall back on “what worked before” in the very wrongheaded assumption that horror fans won’t care.

Oh, we care. And we also hope your bid for mainstream success has a Plan B, since based on the evidence here, I would say fans of Asian cinema have valid reason to fear for your remakes of I Saw the Devil and Death Note.

So let’s go there: Blair Witch is the most blatantly cynical remake since that retread of The Omen (which seemed to exist solely for its stupid 6-6-06 release date). It truly is one of those films that does nothing but update technology and make explicit things that were scarier when implied, with predictably underwhelming results. There is nothing contained within its 89 taxing, all-too-familiar minutes that justifies its existence in the slightest.

Gone is the naturalistic feel of the 1999 film. Everything in this new version is calculated and staged within an inch of its life, and our unlikable campers – even the trailer-park yokels (one of whom you’ll recognize from TV’s The Following) – look like they’d rather be modeling underwear. Are they worth mentioning by name? As Wingard and Barrett give us no reason to care, the answer is a resounding NO.

The plot is a lot of “just because” nonsense. James (James Allen McCune), little brother to The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue, decides to follow in his sister’s footsteps and make a film documenting his attempt to find her in the woods of Burkittsville. His friends go along because, duh, they’re his friends. As well as Lisa (Callie Hernandez), a cinematographer/producer/I-don’t-know whose primary function seems to be keeping people sane by acting as ineffectual as possible. There is potential here: what if Heather, had she survived, reverted to a feral state in the woods, and established an alternative, primitive existence for herself – or, maybe better, reappeared as a conduit for the witch? Such development would’ve increased the emotional stakes, strengthened the character arcs, and given Blair Witch a desperately needed sense of purpose.

But that would suggest a film interested in matters of innovation and artistic integrity. (Just because it’s a remake or sequel doesn’t mean it has to be shit, but that is of no concern to Wingard and Barrett.)

The duo’s worst film, A Horrible Way to Die, ironically shows the most interest in character and setup, because it’s a perpetual wind-up device in service to a disappointing climactic payoff. In You’re Next and The Guest, the characters are hastily introduced and given flimsy pretexts for their actions, ignoring logic and reason. (We’re expected to follow along for no reason other than the promise of something “badass” occurring later down the line.) Wingard and Barrett are enemies of subtlety, and outside of some throwaway moments, nobody stops to question James’s thinking, or the legitimacy of the yokels who guide them into the woods. Characters wander off alone and are separated and inexplicably reappear and eventually die; there is nothing new here.

But remember to get some footage as you’re walking away from the vehicles, because that might foreshadow something.

On the technical side, Blair Witch is a mess. Cameras shake and fall; cutting is abrupt during action scenes; and sound effects are amplified in the name of desperate jump-scares. In other words, it reverts to the same lame tricks most mainstream horror films utilize to make lots of money these days. What’s it saying that the original still holds up – despite the countless imitators produced in its wake – and Blair Witch feels like the type of processed, shat-out imitation that most will see right through? By the time we reach a familiar (Blum)house at the climax, it’s a CGI affair punctuated by a perfectly-timed rainstorm, complete with lightning flashing through windows.

Seriously?

There were a few things I appreciated in Blair Witch: first is a unique death that, while lacking any sort of narrative logic, provides an unexpected jolt. Second is a sequence wherein a character finds herself in a tunnel beneath the house, pushing her way through an increasingly narrow space; this thrives off a sense of claustrophobia and the terror of something unknown waiting on the other side, and the minimal lighting – reminiscent of The Descent – adds to the dread. And when the aforementioned drone initially takes flight, it’s a genuinely vertiginous, majestic moment; too bad the filmmakers felt the need to repeat it two more times.

But if the worthwhile moments total under 5 minutes, you’ve failed pretty badly. To the horror sites that kept the (rather lame) “secret” of the new Blair Witch while praising all the good it would do for the genre, I hope the bump in traffic helped compensate for that weak sauce you so willingly sucked down.

1 out of 5 stars

(Deaditor’s Note: Blair Witch release date from Lionsgate is January 3, 2017.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) talks about horror movies at New Year’s parties and misses the countdown. His reviews also appear at loudgreenbird.com, and he judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Blair Witch photo from IndieWire.)

The 2000s: Horror’s Best Decade (Part I) by Paul J. Williams

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Please allow me to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed and spoilers will exist, so please keep that in mind as you read.

And I’m not a movie historian or expert, just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies. I also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: Why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.

If you’ve read my three-part article on horror cinema of the 1990’s, then you’ll remember that I argued the ‘90s was a good decade for movies in general, but the worst for the genre of horror. This time, I’m here to tell you the opposite: I submit that the 2000s were one of the best decades for films and probably the best for horror.

Okay, okay, I hear you: What about the Universal Pictures’ movies of the ‘30s? What about the slasher craze of the ‘70s that lead to the boom of the ‘80s? Great decades, no doubt, but I think the ‘00s have them beat.

LIFE AND TIMES OF THE EARLY 2000s: A (Very) Brief Summary

While the world of the ‘90s seemed to be split in two: the first half being not so great and the second half being pretty good, the 2000s seemed to be punctuated with moderate peaks and very low valleys.

The decade starts with one of the worst events in American history: September 11, 2001. If you’re of a certain age, your life is probably divided between pivotal, oftentimes tragic events in your life (e.g.: before and after a close family member dies unexpectedly, etc.). For Americans, and perhaps for other parts of the world, our pre-9/11 and post-9/11 lives are added to that list.

The requisite War of Terror followed, but soon devolved into the quagmire that became the Iraq War.

In 2002, as if to snap the American public back into normalcy, the Washington D.C.-area sniper was on the loose, scaring the hell out of folks just like the Son of Sam and Zodiac Killer of yore.

In 2004, a devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed hundreds of thousands, becoming one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.

The one common denominator in all this: Almost everything was caught on video for the world to see, sometimes playing out in real time. More on this later.

So, that was the bad; let’s get to the good…

EARLY 2000s HORROR: Crawling Before We Run

1999 gave us two of the best horror movies of that decade, so we had every right to think that we were heading into better times for the genre, but maybe not as fast as we thought.

The modern “found-footage” phenomenon was kicked off with The Blair Witch Project, but it would take years for another recognizable film of this subgenre to emerge, and more than a half-decade before the found-footage franchises found audiences (more on that subject later).

Night Shamalyan’s, The Sixth Sense, reinvigorated the ghost story and psychological horror subgenres, but it’s not until 2001 until we get another good one with Nicole Kidman in The Others, an effective haunted house story that I feel would have been even more successful if it wasn’t a victim of poor timing as audiences had already seen the very similar ending in the aforementioned Sixth Sense. I’m not sure when the script for Others was written or when the project went into development, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the story and screenplay had been around for years, maybe even before Sixth Sense, but alas, that movie was released first, stealing some of The Others’ thunder.

THE RING

Somewhat paradoxically, I feel the first horror movie to really get the 21st century going is The Ring, the 2002 remake of Japan’s J-Horror Ringu from 1998. I say “paradoxically” because the plot-points of this movie are based on technology that seemed primitive only a few years later, but the film still holds up overall after more than a decade later. The movie was well-received by critics and was a huge hit at the box-office, launching a stream of Japanese horror remakes to varying degrees of success. Naomi Watts returned in 2005 for the obligatory sequel, The Ring Two (which is just awful), but she won’t be back for the third film, RINGS, tentatively set for a 2017 release after many delays (not an optimistic sign, unfortunately).

THE ASIAN INVASION

Remakes seemed omnipresent in the 2000s (for better or worse, but more for worse, and more on that later), but as previously stated, the success of The Ring caught Hollywood’s attention and made them research what horror-movies that Asia, particularly Japan, had for them to acquire the rights to. Most of what followed was lackluster at best: Dark Water in 2005 was panned, despite its stellar cast; Pulse, even with Wes Craven penning the screenplay, floundered in 2006; One Missed Call became one of 2008’s most worst reviewed movies; and Shutter remade the exceptional 2003 Thai horror in 2008, but couldn’t capture the same magic.

The outlier in all these films is 2004’s creepy The Grudge, a financially successful remake of Japan’s Ju-On: The Grudge. After banking almost $200 million dollars worldwide, two sequels were to follow in 2006 and 2009, and you guessed it, they aren’t as good.

SAW

2004’s seminal movie, Saw, written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, is perhaps responsible for a couple things: re-starting franchise films like we saw in the 1980s, and being part (although a small one) of the start of a new subgenre: torture porn.

In case you’ve lived on Mars for the past thirteen years, Saw tells the story of the Jigsaw Killer, who compels his kidnapped victims to make terrible choices, but are given a chance to live if the “right” choice is made, ultimately teaching them lessons on taking life for granted. What would you do?

Saw mixed creepy visuals with blood and gore, and concludes with a surprising, though fairly implausible ending. It’s a real “fun” ride.

Though, unsurprisingly, it received mixed reviews, Saw was a hit with audiences, grossing over $100 million dollars at the box office and spawning seven sequels over the next thirteen years.

Both Whannell and Wan, especially Wan, capitalized on the success of Saw, and both have established themselves as leaders in the horror genre ever since.

ZOMBIES RETURN FROM THE DEAD

28 Days Later, written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle, became a surprise hit in 2002, both with critics and movie-goers, eventually grossing over $85 million dollars on an $8 million dollar budget. The British film put a new twist on an old tenet of how zombies hunt you down. No more would they lumber around. They now had the speed of Usain Bolt, and it works perfectly. Essentially a road-trip movie, our crew of protagonists are en route to a destination they think will be safe, only to find out that the living are worse than the dead. We’ve come to find out over the years, the film actually has several alternate endings, which I’m pretty sure you can check out on later DVD releases, or on YouTube.

What 28 Days Later launched was a seemingly unrelenting stream of zombie movies, the more notable being:

2004’s horror/comedy Shaun of the Dead with Simon Pegg.

Zach Snyder’s directorial debut with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

2006’s Canadian horror/comedy Fido.

Will Smith starred in 2007’s I Am Legend, which somehow has bad C.G.I. and should have kept its original ending.

2007’s Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s entry in the double-feature with Quentin Tarantino.

George Romero returned in 2007 with his found-footage zombie film, Diary of the Dead.

2008’s Pontypool, while not a personal favorite, has definitely developed a bit of a cult following over the years, so I can’t deny its impact.

2008’s controversial Deadgirl (not to be confused with 2006’s The Dead Girl, the depressing Brittany Murphy crime-drama).

2009’s crazy French film, La Horde.

2009 gave us Zombieland, a funny and poignant horror/comedy with the exceptional Woody Harrelson, and probably the zombie/post-apocalyptic movie that uses the ubiquitous “rules to survive” plot-points the best way.

NEW FRENCH EXTREMISM

In the early 2000s, while France was being derided for its anti-democratic pacifism and chided by such clever jokes as “Freedom Fries” (get it?), film-makers from or affiliated with the country turned out some of the most transgressive movies in cinema history. Here’s a sampling:

Trouble Every Day is a 2001 Vincent Gallo marathon of eroticism and blood that has become more recognized fifteen years later.

Irreversible, though perhaps not technically in the horror genre, is a 2002 Gasper Noe film that unfolds in reverse chronological order. Despite not being labeled a horror, the movie has some of the most horrific, hard to watch scenes ever shown, the most infamous being the nine-minute, uncut rape scene of Monica Bellucci’s character. Controversial immediately upon release, Noe has defended the movie against criticism of homophobia ever since.

Haute Tension, a gory slasher movie from 2003, became infamous for the scenes they had to cut for an R rating, a twist ending that defies logic, many title changes, a version with odd voice dubbing, and, ultimately, a plot a little too similar to Dean Koontz’s Intensity. Despite this, the movie received as many good reviews as bad, and tripled its budget with almost $7 million dollars in box office sales.

Ils (Them) is a 2006 home invasion horror with a simple set-up: A young husband and wife are alone in a huge house located in a remote area, and evil’s come-a-callin’. It’s a pretty cool reveal when that evil is identified at the end. (The home invasion subgenre will be discussed further later on.)

Frontieres, with themes as relevant in late 2016 U.S.A. as they were when this was released in 2007 France, so let’s hope this gore-fest from writer/director Xavier Gens isn’t prophetic.

Inside, a 2007 home invasion horror that transcends that subgenre, is equal parts scary as it is bloody…and I mean bloody. The surprise ending works perfect and makes sense out of the carnage and antagonist’s motivation. It’s a great entry to this list.

Martyrs, last on the list, but definitely not least, is a 2008 movie from Pascal Laugier. Where to start with this movie? There’s just nothing like it. Divisive, to say the least, you can categorize this gory film as torture-porn, but it’s so much more than that. You’ll go through so many different emotions during its 94 minutes. Oh, it’s home invasion? Who’s the bad guy? Wait, it’s torture-porn? What’s the point of all this? Oh, there’s a point, my friend. Wait for the ending you’ll never forget that makes sense out of everything you just watched. I obviously can’t do this movie the justice it deserves; please, just watch it.

NEIL MARSHALL

England’s Neil Marshall brought us two of my favorite horror movies of the early 2000s, one many have seen and one many might not have: The Descent and Dog Soldiers.

With the werewolf subgenre being a personal favorite, Neil Marshall’s 2002 Dog Soldiers is a great addition to this catalogue. We set out to the Scottish Highlands with a squad of British soldiers on a training mission who become hunted by werewolves. Even though a plot-twist or two can be seen coming, the movie perfectly mixes action, horror, and gallows humor, all on a low budget. It’s very well done.

The Descent from 2005 is a superior monster movie, telling the tale of a group of women who set out spelunking in the Appalachian Mountains. One of the ladies suffered a tragedy a year earlier – a gory car accident we witness in the prologue where her husband and daughter are killed, and this trip is supposed to be cathartic and strengthen the bond of friendship between the women. Way before any creatures become apparent, the danger and claustrophobia of their adventure is horror enough. Once the monstrous cave-crawlers appear, the movie really takes off, with the most notable scare coming from a camera’s night-vision function. The film was a hit with critics and audiences, eventually earning almost $60 million dollars, which was fourteen times its budget. A 2009 sequel was released with Marshall serving only as Executive Producer, but the movie couldn’t capture the magic the first film did. How could it have…

As for Neil Marshall himself, he hasn’t written or directed any original material recently, but has gone on to have a successful Hollywood career, directing episodes for Game of Thrones, Hannibal, and Westward.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I would be remiss to not mention the following films that bettered the horror genre in the early 2000s:

American Psycho is a 2000 slasher/serial killer movie adapted from the novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis and, ironically, written and directed by two women: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Starring Christian Bale before his stardom, the film tells a tale of misogyny and excess in the backdrop of 1980’s Manhattan, with Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker, who moonlights as a serial killer…or does he???

Ginger Snaps, a 2000 Canadian werewolf story of two teenage sisters. Though you’re run over like a truck by its themes, the movie tells a poignant coming-of-age story and the bonds of siblings.

Final Destination, in 2000, started a supernatural gore-fest that would eventually lead to five films in the franchise. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the late-90’s teen slasher craze, our young protagonists try to escape Death, but of course, it wouldn’t be a movie if they all did.

Jeepers Creepers, in 2001, also capitalized on the late-90’s teenage slasher film, this time telling the story of a brother and sister who set-off on a road trip during the worst time imaginable and end up stalked by a demonic creature. Grossed $60 million dollars on a $10 million dollar budget.

Session 9, 2001’s psychological horror, which pops up on almost every “Best of 2000s” list, went unseen by yours truly and a lot of other folks when it was first released, but has since become a cult classic in the genre. Directed by Brad Anderson, who would go on to have a Hollywood career of ups and downs.

May, written and directed by Lucky McKee in 2002, while well-received critically at the time, has developed a big cult following ever since. With obvious parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Angela Bettis plays the titular character, who many audience members identify with.

That gets us warmed up, so stay tuned for Part 2 of 2000s Horror, where real fun begins…

(Photo of Saw‘s Cary Elwes from Netflix Life.)

Crash Palace Support Team

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Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and his short films have appeared in numerous festivals. Although Paul’s the man behind Rolling Dark Productions, he’s also a detective in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul’s a Medal of Honor recipient from the City of Newark for actions on December 14, 2002

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982) – An Appreciation by Jonny Numb

halloween-iii-season-of-the-witch-images-8b7263d5-41d2-4298-bfb5-9dc7114b896 HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)

[98 minutes. R. Director: Tommy Lee Wallace]

In the featurette on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, producer Irwin Yablans, going to bat for the late Moustapha Akkad, takes swing after swing at the creative team, insisting that the removal of burgeoning slasher icon Michael Myers from the series was “a bad idea,” and that he had little involvement with the film outside of “collecting a check.” This not only typifies the cynical stereotype of a film producer, but is an intriguing echo of Akkad’s own cash-grab mentality for the series, which reared its head something bigger and uglier as it continued miserably through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The franchise was never really about Michael Myers: it was about guys like Yablans and Akkad docking another yacht at the pier.

My own history with Season of the Witch – and the Halloween series overall – is odd. For the most part, I prefer the lesser-liked entries as opposed to the canonized fan favorites (I think John Carpenter’s 1978 original is, like The Shining, one of the most overrated horror films of all time). The irony is, I grew up disliking III for the reason Yablans stated – a Halloween film without Myers? That’s like a Reese’s without peanut butter – what’s the point?

But there was something to it all the same. Along with my lukewarm perception of some of the other series entries, I found myself returning to III time and again over the years.

Now I think I know why: rejected initially for its refusal to conform to what the series had established up to that point (the Michael-Loomis-Laurie triangle) – along with a title and marketing campaign that confused potential ticket-buyers – the film failed at the box office. In the ensuing years, as the producers returned to the Michael mythos (following them down the dire “Thorn” rabbit-hole), the original icon proved the law of diminishing returns with some truly abysmal outings.

This, I think, is when the attitude toward III began to change. I know several horror fans who consider it the best of the series because it ditches Michael (outside of his briefly-glimpsed movie-within-a-movie image on TV monitors), and I can imagine those – like myself – who were harsh on it before, noticing new wrinkles in its actually-very-good quality as the Michael slasher antics became indistinguishable from the imitators he spawned.

So, in a way, the producers’ insistence on driving the Myers story into the ground probably worked to III’s ultimate advantage.

While the film didn’t necessarily launch rugged tough-guy actor Tom Atkins into the stratosphere, it did establish his signature character: confident yet not macho; a deadbeat dad, yet not a bad guy; an Average Joe who still wants to do the right thing – not only for his fellow human, but for the world at large. He’s the type of doctor who goes about work with half his shirt unbuttoned, and casts a spell of desire over women almost half his age! He’s the type of blue-collar hero who does his best thinking with a six-pack of Miller or a bottle of bourbon. As typical as it sounds, we want him to save the world and get the girl at the end.

III’s reduced focus on horror is something that also may have soured word of mouth for those who actually did venture out to see it during its theatrical run. Most genre hybrids at that time (like, say, Alien) seamlessly interweaved elements of sci-fi and horror, while the semi-comedic likes of Night of the Creeps were still several years away (you could cite 1981’s Student Bodies, but that was another film that didn’t attain cult status until years later). III integrates everything from Noir (silhouetted characters, smoky bars, rain-streaked windows, seedy motel rooms) to science fiction (Atkins’ “Stop it!” plea at the end is an effective riff on “You’re next!” from Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to horror (the film takes place in the isolated town of Santa Mira, rich with banal, Lovecraft-styled menace).

Like many latter-day remakes and homages, III shares more in common with its predecessors than most of its detractors would probably like to admit: Carpenter’s Halloween is alluded to early on as “the immortal classic” and serves as the preamble to the televised “giveaway” that frames the final minutes; ditto the extensive use of over-the-shoulder shots and silhouettes of stoic characters glaring on. In a nod to Halloween II, some early action takes place in a hospital, wherein an assassin (stuntman Dick Warlock), after stalking the halls Michael Myers-style, kills a catatonic old man before proceeding to incinerate himself in the parking lot (remember when Myers went on a hospital rampage before meeting a similarly fiery “end”?).

The elements of mystery are well-integrated, and in telling a different kind of story, writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace (the It television miniseries) avoids a lot of the pitfalls that marred Carpenter’s film. What I found frustrating about the original Halloween (and something that was corrected rather well in the 1981 sequel) was the way it telegraphed its scary moments well in advance – whether by triggering an intrusive musical cue or making the viewer privy to information other characters were not.

III, on the other hand, leaves the audience to speculate on what might be happening in Santa Mira, where the lone industry is Silver Shamrock, a novelty company that manufactures Halloween masks. We pick up on information only as the characters do; thus, an atmosphere of suspense is maintained throughout – Wallace’s script may be the stuff of pulp dreams, but it’s almost brilliant in its execution. And the fact that Silver Shamrock’s founder, Conal Cochran (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy) ingratiatingly leaves some of Atkins’s questions unanswered upon his capture is surprisingly endearing. When revealing one of the Stonehenge stones in his factory warehouse, he laughingly states, “We had a time getting it here – you wouldn’t believe how we did it!” And honestly? That’s all we need to know.

But for those who haven’t seen it, the plot involves lifelike robots in business suits, the Celtic festival of Samhain (which, if you’ll recall, was mentioned several times in Halloween II), and a plot to kill the children of America on Halloween night.

The key supporting cast is wonderful: Stacey Nelkin plays a Nancy Drew-ish daughter pursuing the explanation for her kindly father’s murder, her performance reverberating with as much common sense as wide-eyed wonder as events unfold. O’Herlihy essays one of the most unconventional villains ever depicted on-screen; with charm to burn, he lays out his plans for world annihilation with the confidence of a Bond villain, but is never smug. If anything, his bemusement at his own fate nicely mirrors his P.T. Barnum approach to chaos. And if we want to go even further, his character is an apt corollary to Sebastian (William Sanderson) in Blade Runner (released the same year) – a lonely toymaker who relates more to automatons than people.

Granted, there are things in III that are kind of stupid: from the cheaply-affixed buttons that fall off the kids’ masks (calling into question the robots in charge of Cochran’s quality control); the way Atkins – who isn’t seen operating a computer at any point in the film – is able to easily cue up the Silver Shamrock “death feed” at the climax; and how, mere minutes before the mass murder is scheduled to occur, Atkins is able to get a national TV station on the phone and, despite his manic demeanor…well, I won’t give it away. (But seriously: in 1982, were there really only three television channels in the United States?) There’s also the “hide-behind-the-moving-mask-cart” trick that Sideshow Bob subsequently used on an episode of The Simpsons. These elements would be distracting in a lesser film, but here they add a peculiar charm.

The plot is already out there, so why not shoot for the moon – or, at the very least, Stonehenge?

4 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny 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 loudgreenbird.com. He judges other things via antisocial media @JonnyNumb (Twitter and Letterboxd), and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast with @crashpalace.

(Halloween III photo from Atherton.)

The Walking Dead: Too Much, or Does Lucille Save the Day? by Kim McDonald

weekend-preview-walking-dead-negan-feature-hero-800x450When the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead was over, and for most of the next day, I walked around my house in a depressed daze. I cried. I felt nauseated. I even felt a bit disoriented. What was going to happen to our group now?

I also felt relieved. Not because I wanted Glenn and Abraham to die, or to watch Rick be completely destroyed, but because I was glad the show finally refused to take the safe way out. This was The Walking Dead I fell in love with: dangerous, and not afraid to completely shred your heart to pieces. Negan is a bad dude, but he is also a necessary evil. We need a good bad guy sometimes to shake things up. Rick may need a break from the Good Guy/Crazy Lunatic routine.

I need to explain. At the end of Season 6, I, and quite a few others, were left frustrated. Once again, after so much build up, things just ended. Everyone knew Negan was coming and things were going to end badly. What we got was a lot of driving around and cut offs just at the moment of truth. I understand the value of cliffhangers, but the show had worn the concept rather thin the past few years.

It started with the Terminus storyline in seasons 4 and 5. There was such a build up that everything was about getting to Terminus. Then they were there a day and Carol busted them out. Don’t get me wrong, Carol is a straight up badass I could watch all day. And, in a sense, I feel like I have. Carol seems to be the only one not lulled into complacency the last few seasons. Sure, she makes cookies and casseroles, but she’s also hoarding chocolate and guns and threatening small boys because she understands this isn’t a soap opera and we need to be ready for shit to go down – since something is always inches away from eating your face. We also saw her begin to buckle under the strain of always having to be the clean up crew.

I wanted to know more about Terminus. The brief flashback of who they were before becoming cannibals was interesting. The group should have hung out a bit, had lunch, then realize what exactly was in the soup. The Wolves were built up too. My point is, our group has been much more dangerous and menacing than anything they’ve recently encountered. The Glenn dumpster episode felt a bit cheap and cheesy. Deus ex machina flashed brightly in my head.

This show is better than that.

The group also seemed to land on the planet of the Red Shirts. There has been a parade of peripheral characters who don’t stick around long and get killed off quickly. We aren’t given time to invest in them so their deaths, while gruesome, don’t seem to carry as much emotional impact. Case in point: When Jessie and her sons died, I didn’t really care. Good riddance to a storyline that seemed to flounder. And her kids were annoying, so it was actually a bit of a plus watching them go. I was disappointed when the Saviors who captured Carol and Maggie were killed so quickly. We all knew they were doomed, but I actually wanted to know them. No such luck.

The season 7 premiere felt like a demarcation episode. Negan is going to change everything, and I’m excited to see how our group deals with what has happened. There are new communities and interesting characters, like Ezekiel and his tiger, Shiva. Can the group stick together, or do they scatter? Can Rick bounce back now that he’s without his brothers and trusted generals? Can Carol find her purpose again after being burned out? We don’t know. For the first time everything is unknown, and it’s great. If the show is going to last, and be relevant, it has to evolve.

The reaction on social media to this episode was not surprising. I don’t remember another episode eliciting such a strong gut-wrenching response. There has been a reaction that at first confused me. Posts and articles started popping up stating the violence in the episode went too far; accusations of torture porn were thrown around. At first, I thought it was coming from morality groups who pop up now and then, feeding off the ratings explosion of the premiere. I then realized the posts were coming from people who watched the show, who were fans, and I became even more confused.

The Walking Dead is now in its 7th season. It was never a Mary Poppins show. What exactly had these people been watching all these years? As gruesome and horrible as Glenn and Abraham’s deaths were, they weren’t unique. What about when the Governor chopped off Herschel’s head, and not in one neat swing? Or when Noah was ripped to pieces in the revolving door? Did they forget? What was it about the violence in this episode that had people saying they were walking away from the show?

It has little to do with how the characters were killed, and more to do with who was killed. Glenn was the first of the original Atlanta group to die since Andrea and Merle back in Woodberry. He was Rick’s introduction to the group. He was the heart and the light, the moral compass that always guided the group back to center even when Rick was unstable. He was the everyman character we related to – a regular guy figuring it out as he went along. His death leaves us in darkness. Abraham was the fearless soldier who rushed in, and the group is less without him. So it makes sense that people are grieving. We are a species that tells stories; the characters become real. When they die, we feel the need to lash out, to blame someone. I understand. In a way, it is a further testament to the power of the episode.

Things have to be broken down periodically, and rebuilt. With all the criticism, I’ve also heard some fans say they had lost interest but were now willing to get back into the show. Horror is about unsettling us, reminding us that life is never truly complacent. I really hope that once the shock wears off, these fans will stay for the story. Great horror keeps us coming back, despite ourselves.

Crash Analysis Support Team:

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Kim McDonald rocks out on metal near Charlotte, North Carolina, and obsesses over “weirder” foreign horror films. You can find Kim’s movie reviews at loudgreenbird.com and follow her on Twitter @dixiefairy.

(The Walking Dead photo from Screen Rant.)