31 Days of Horror: Week 4

Week 4: October 21 – October 27

Some people are Jason enthusiasts, some are Michael Meyers devotees, and others are Leatherface aficionados. I’m a Freddy girl, pure and simple. Freddy introduced me to the world of franchise horror, so my heart belongs to him. I was eight years old, sleeping over a friend’s house under minimal supervision (her mother had passed away, her father wasn’t home, and her older sister was in charge) when we decided to watch a movie. It turned out that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors was coming up on HBO; I’m not sure whose idea it was to put it on (probably the older sister and/or her boyfriend) but soon I found myself immersed in a world where falling asleep could kill you. I entered my first rated-R movie with the sole concern that I wouldn’t be able to follow it: “But I haven’t seen the first two!” I objected. I was assured that wouldn’t be a problem, they’d explain whatever background was necessary, and that was that. About 5 minutes into the movie there’s a little girl riding an old-fashioned red and white metal tricycle, which she eventually ends up riding in the basement of a creepy old house. In an odd coincidence, my brother and I often took turns riding my mom’s old red and silver metal tricycle in my grandparents’ basement whenever we went for a visit, so it almost felt like this was fate…I was meant to watch this movie. It was made for me. And so I fell in love with a child murderer with a questionable sense of fashion and a penchant for making wisecracks as he terrorizes teenagers in their sleep.

Of course, I was also absolutely terrified. I mean, come on…I was only eight. But there was affection buried deep within that frightened little girl, affection that has only grown through the years. Freddy was my first horror love. And you never forget your first.

(By the way, if you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned characters, you have to watch this wonderfully hysterical spoof: Slashstreet Boys – “I’ll Kill You That Way.”)

This week is full of firsts – the first horror movie I ever watched, the first rated-R movie I ever saw, the first Swedish vampire movie (that I’m aware of) ever made, and the first attempt at another actor stepping into the shoes of the irreplaceable Robert Englund, who has almost exclusively portrayed a character beloved (and feared) by many.

So let the horror-infused fun commence…

DAY 21

Title: The Haunting

Year Released: 1963

Rating: G

First viewing: No

My tagline: It’s not the ghosts you should be worried about, it’s the house itself.

Summary: Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the story follows a group of people who are trying to determine if a New England mansion is haunted.

Terror trivia: One of the actors claimed to have had a terrifying experience in real-life during a break in filming exterior scenes on location.

My reaction: This is my all-time favorite horror movie, the first I ever watched. It’s also one of those rare instances in which I’ve actually read the book (I prefer the movie, since that’s the version I was exposed to first, but I very much enjoyed the book as well). My viewing experience was different this year, probably because I knew I was going to write about it for this article. As a result, I found myself watching with fresh eyes, appreciating small details I had long since taken for granted. For example, the script is amazing. The sheer artlessness of the dialogue is admirable, especially during scenes where several people are talking at once. There’s one such scene in particular where two conversations are overlapping in a kind of orderly chaos that one often comes across in real life. You don’t see that happen too often in movies today, where words are all carefully timed so no one is stepping on another character’s lines. The timing here is just as deliberate, but the screenwriters dared to break the rules and allowed the characters to act naturally instead of always waiting their turn, giving it a more authentic feel. Along those lines, I think the character of Luke Sanderson is especially effective with his constant barrage of wisecracks. He has a quip for every situation, a quality that could easily seem forced if it’s not written or delivered just right. But Luke’s easy manner and crafty wordplay are entirely natural, and remind you of “that guy (or girl) I know” who does the same thing.

But the absolute best thing about the movie is the fact that you never actually see anything happen. The characters hear a variety of strange sounds and find physical evidence that something happened, but no one ever watches it happen as it happens. It’s almost like the shark in Jaws, only with a house (except, unlike Jaws, you never get to see what the house is doing as it does it). It’s an exceedingly effective technique, as it allows your imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and I think it takes this film to the next level. I should mention the 1999 remake if only to warn you that it completely eviscerates the story and is disturbingly bad in general. Meanwhile, if you’re wondering if I’ve seen the new The Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix, I haven’t (I have no free time, what with my watching a horror movie a day and writing a weekly article about the experience), but I do plan on catching it once the dust from Halloween settles. It looks like it may be a continuation of the story told here, however I won’t know until I see it myself. Whether that’s the case or not, this movie is an incredible addition to the horror genre that everyone can enjoy – tame enough for children (and non-horror fans), yet frightening enough to satisfy a fan’s search for scares.

DAY 21 (CONTINUED)

Title: The Disappointments Room

Year Released: 2016

Rating: R

First viewing: Yes

My tagline: “Disappointment” isn’t a strong enough word to describe it.

Summary: A family moves into a sprawling new house and discovers a hidden room in the attic. Oh, and there are ghosts.

Terror trivia: Apparently disappointment rooms were really a thing.

My reaction: The title says it all – this movie was a HUGE disappointment, even more so than last week’s The Ritual. At least that one had a plot…this one seems to have forgotten to include a storyline; at best you could say that it possesses the barest outline of one. My two sentence summary pretty much covers it. Frankly, the only thing that made this movie worth watching is the fact that it taught me about disappointment rooms, which I’d never heard of before. And now that I’ve provided you with a link that’ll explain what they are, instead of wasting your time with the movie, you can simply click and read…or go a step further and type “disappointment rooms” in the search engine of your choice and do your own research. Aside from that I only have a couple comments. The first involves Kate Beckinsale; I think she looks completely different with blonde hair. Her face was familiar, but I just couldn’t place her, so I ended up cheating and IMDB-ing the movie. The second involves the contractor who shows up uninvited offering to help fix a leak in the house. He was WAY too young for Kate Beckinsale. Before you start shouting “Why is it acceptable for older men to date younger women but not the other way around?” hear me out. Maybe it’s because I’m female and I work with teenagers, but this guy looked so young that it made me uneasy. When he flirted with her it wasn’t sexy and exciting, it was awkward and uncomfortable. Not to mention the fact that she clearly wasn’t interested. Neither was I – in him or the movie itself. My advice is to avoid this disappointing movie at all costs.

DAY 22

Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year Released: 1984

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: The man of your dreams might be the death of you.

Summary: A group of teenagers fight for their lives against a nightmarish man who tortures and kills them in their sleep.

Terror trivia: In a cut scene, we learn that the teenagers of Elm Street are not only children – they each had a sibling that was killed by Freddy when he was still alive.

My reaction: I’ve always thought this was a pretty clever concept. Other horror movie franchises involve physical beings (though some are imbued with supernatural powers) chasing people in the physical realm…Freddy stalks your dreams. Running away and concealing yourself in some secret place won’t work; if you’re on his list, he’s eventually going to get you. This original Freddy is much less chatty and much more sinister than he is in most of the other Nightmare movies (admittedly I haven’t seen them all, but I’ve heard/read things about them and caught bits and pieces of them through the years), with the notable exception of New Nightmare (see Wednesday’s movie below). His look isn’t quite the polished version we’re used to either; the makeup is slightly different with a kind of dark, shiny slime-like substance covering his face. A sturdy foundation has been laid, however, and enough of the original remains that he is recognizable throughout the series. This was also filmed during a time when they used more age-appropriate actors (one was 20, two were 21, and one was 24) to play teenagers, and I think it shows. If you compare this cast with the one used in the 2010 remake (mostly 24, with one 23 year old and one 25 year old), the original group actually looks like teenagers with their fresh faces and minimal makeup. Additionally, the special effects department needs to be acknowledged because they did a fantastic job. Several examples of their wizardry stand out in my mind: when Freddy tries to come through the wall over the bed, Tina’s murder (which never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I watch it – I know how they did it, but they did it so well!), and the stairs that break and trap Nancy’s feet in sticky goo so she can’t run. The first and last effects are relatively simple, yet they were executed so skillfully I’m impressed by them every time I watch the movie. If you’ve never seen any of the Nightmare movies and you’d like to give one a try, this is the perfect introduction to Freddy Krueger.

DAY 23

Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Year Released: 1987

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: You can’t run, you can’t hide, so if you want to live, you have to fight.

Summary: Teenagers in a mental hospital struggle to stay awake and stay alive with the help of the sole survivor of Freddy’s initial campaign of terror.

Terror trivia: During filming, Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) dozed off in front of a mirror in full makeup and gave himself quite a fright when he saw his reflection upon waking.

My reaction: I’ve already told you the story of how I ended up watching this as a kid and what my initial reaction was. Allow me to add that my grandparents’ basement was never the same after I watched it; I was no longer comfortable being down there alone, though I did test my bravery a few times by running to the basement to get something my grandma needed. I was fine as long as she was down there with me and my brother (grandmas can protect you from anything), but I didn’t want to be there by myself. Dream Warriors finally gives us Freddy’s origin story via a mysterious nun who pops up every now and then throughout the movie. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for those kinds of things. Character-wise, Nancy’s return to the franchise is a huge success in my book – she’s arguably the best character (after Freddy himself, of course), strong and independent with a healthy amount of skepticism that can be overturned with the right type of evidence. Unlike Florence from The Awakening or Fox Mulder from The X-Files, she DOESN’T want to believe Freddy’s back. But the gradual accumulation proof convinces her that like it or not, these children are being hunted and murdered in their dreams by the man himself, just like her friends were. Although not the primary focus, this film does take a look at mental health facilities and the terribly depressing gap that can exist between doctors wanting to help their patients and actually being able to do so. The doctors in the movie possess a desire to help these teens, but most are unwilling to listen to them. Yes, some of their claims are farfetched (A guy is trying to kill them in their sleep? Yeah, right.), but the teens also make reasonable observations about their situation that are ignored as well. There are a few special effects of note in this film too – such as Freddy’s head coming out of the TV, the “Freddy snake” that comes out of the wall and tries to eat a character, and the hall of mirrors – all a credit to the people behind them. I’ve never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, so I can’t speak to that one, but it’s my understanding that (a) it’s terrible and (b) the only connection between it and the original is Freddy, so my advice is to skip 2 and go directly to 3.

DAY 24

Title: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Year Released: 1994

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: Freddy doesn’t just want to haunt your dreams anymore. Now he has his sights set on your waking hours too.

Summary: Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and her family are harassed by an obsessed fan who may end up being Freddy himself.

Terror trivia: Partially based on Heather Langenkamp’s real-life experience with a stalker.

My reaction: This is a movie where several actors play versions of themselves, most notably Heather, Jon Saxon (Nancy’s father in the original), and Robert Englund (if you don’t know who he plays by now, you haven’t been paying attention). Some of the behind-the-scenes people (producers, writers, etc.) played themselves as well, including creator Wes Craven. The entire concept is fun, a meta-movie before meta-movies were popular, but Craven’s explanation of what’s going on and why, the very heart of the plot, is by far the most creative piece of the puzzle. Unlike the other Nightmare movies, this one starts to lean more heavily on CGI effects, which is disappointing – the practical effects from the earlier films are still effective after all these years, while some of the CGI doesn’t stand the test of time. Never fear, though, there’s still a scattering of decent practical effects to be found throughout that almost make up for the not-so-great CGI. Almost. What keeps me coming back (and helps me overlook these issues) is the cleverness of the story as well as the nostalgia it inspires with its little winks and nods to the franchise (cameos by a couple of actors, a photograph of the original group of teens and Freddy). That and the return of John Saxon. I’ve always thought he resembled my pediatrician; admittedly I’m terrible at identifying similarities between people (I never see the ones that are obvious and whenever I insist two people look like each other no one else agrees with me), so maybe I’m way off base here, but allow me to remind you that I saw my first Nightmare movie when I was 8. Saxon just so happened to be in that one, so I would’ve been young enough to be able to make the comparison accurately, or at least, as accurately as I’m able to. As a result the two men are now irrevocably entwined in my mind, and the fondness I had for my patient, kind doctor has extended to Saxon. And in this movie he not only resembles my former pediatrician physically, his personality reflects the real man’s temperament too, resulting in its carving a small but permanent place in my heart. It’s worth a watch if you’re already a Nightmare (or Wes Craven) fan, but if this is the only movie in the franchise you plan on watching, I’d suggest you skip it. If you don’t already love the series, this won’t do anything for you.

DAY 25

Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year Released: 2010

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: Snitches don’t just get stitches…sometimes they die.

Summary: When a group of friends realize they’re having similar nightmares, they dig into their own pasts only to discover that they experienced a shared traumatic event.

Terror trivia: Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Freddy Krueger this time around, tried out for the original movie in the 80s. The part went to the friend who accompanied him to the audition. That friend was Johnny Depp.

My reaction: Most die-hard Elm Street fans hate this movie. In fact, even non-fans weren’t particularly fond of it in general, so it might surprise you that it’s another one of my must-watches. First, allow me to say that although it’s certainly not the best Nightmare (or movie in general), I’ve seen much worse. Robert Englund has expressed his thoughts on why it didn’t work in several interviews, and I think he has a point when he says that starting out with the teens already haunted by Freddy was a mistake. That said, he (and I) think Jackie Earle Haley did an outstanding job donning Freddy’s trademark glove. In fact, when I first got wind they were going to make a new movie with someone else as the character I was outraged…but when I found out Haley was going to take it on I was immediately pacified. I was incredibly impressed by his performance as Rorschach in Watchmen (my favorite character in the graphic novel) and knew that he would approach Freddy with the utmost respect and use his immense talent to make the role his own. The story itself is noticeably different from the original, though the bare bones of the basic plot remain. I appreciated some of the smaller touches, like tentatively comparing Freddy to the Pied Piper of Hamlin, introducing the concept of “micro naps” (more accurately called “microsleep”), and presenting the possibility that Freddy may have been falsely accused of the crimes for which he ended up dying. Truth be told, I was secretly hoping that last one was true, vindicating Freddy of wrongdoing and somewhat justifying his rampage. But I suppose taking the story in that direction would’ve changed everything, so alas it was not meant to be. Of all the Nightmare films I’ve watched, this one used the most CGI, even during scenes I would’ve argued it wasn’t necessary – case in point, they recreated the “Freddy comes through the wall to tease Nancy” scene using CGI and I think it looks fake, especially when compared to the practical effects used in the original. In fact, though I appreciate the attempts to recreate several key scenes, I thought the original versions were always superior (regardless of the type of special effects used). In the end, you need to have a deep fondness for Freddy, the franchise, or the plot in order to overlook some of this movie’s glaring flaws and enjoy it. I certainly manage to.

DAY 26

Title: Silent Hill

Year Released: 2006

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: When you see evil everywhere you look, you’ll eventually end up creating it.

Summary: Based on a series of video games by the same name, the story follows a mother who brings her young daughter to an abandoned town in an attempt to help her access what the mother believes are repressed memories.

Terror trivia: The town in the movie is based on the real town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground fire that started in the 1960s continues to burn today.

My reaction: I think it’s important to begin by admitting that I’ve never played any of the Silent Hill games and therefore can’t comment on the similarities/differences between them and the movie. I can only judge the movie on its own merits. There are three separate versions of the world, specifically in Silent Hill, portrayed in the film – the real, “normal” world, the mostly benign “misty” or “shadow” version, and the darker, more dangerous version that contains various horrors. Once Rose, her daughter, and an unsuspecting policewoman enter the town, they become trapped in the latter two versions, which alternate, while Rose’s husband and other officers search the real world version of it. It may sound confusing, but the filmmakers did an outstanding job of letting the viewer know which version the characters are in at any given time through the use of digital color grading and a series of visual/auditory clues (the sound of a siren and sight of flocks of birds flying away precede the switch to the darker Silent Hill; conversely, the slow disintegration of the creatures tormenting the characters is a sign that the darkness is fading). I cannot begin to express how enamored I am with the misty/shadow version of Silent Hill, specifically because I simply can’t get over how awesomely appropriate it is that it snows ash there. How great is that? Another plus, at least in my book, is that we get the origin/backstory of the town and its inhabitants, giving us a more-or-less complete narrative and negating the necessity of a sequel. (Side note – there is a sequel and it’s utterly awful.) There’s some pretty graphic gore, most of which I choose not to watch, not because I’m unable to but because I don’t feel the need to expose myself to that level of carnage. Luckily the majority of the movie is gore-free, so even those more sensitive to blood and guts can enjoy it, provided that they cover their eyes during those scenes. If ghost towns are your thing, Silent Hill is the perfect destination for you to visit.

DAY 27

Title: Halloween

Year Released: 2018

Rating: R

First viewing: Yes

My tagline: Sometimes the past comes back to haunt you…and you have to kill it.

Summary: A direct sequel to the original Halloween released in 1978, Laurie Strode has become an isolated, paranoid woman obsessed with protecting herself and her family against the horrors of the world.

Terror trivia: It’s the biggest opening for a number of categories including: a horror movie with a female lead, a female lead over 55, and any movie in the franchise.

My reaction: For this recently released film I ventured into the world and treated myself to the ridiculously expensive experience of watching a movie in a theater (with popcorn and plain M&Ms, a salty/sweet combination I require on such an occasion). Larger, more comfortable heated seats that recline were an unexpected surprise, as was the necessity of choosing an assigned seat when I purchased my ticket (when did they start doing that?), but once the previews ended and the lights dimmed all of that drifted to the background. It was just me, my snacks, the big screen, and the obnoxious group of teenagers in the back who kept laughing at the most grossly inappropriate times that I wanted to strangle. Jamie Lee Curtis shines in perhaps a career-best performance portraying a woman who’s somehow both heartbreakingly broken and extraordinarily strong all at once. Her life has been completely shaped by the events that took place on that memorable Halloween night 40 years ago, and it’s painful to see that her deep psychological wounds still haven’t healed after all this time. I don’t want to say too much more, since it’s only been out for a week and I figure that if my audience is going to watch any of the movies I’ve written about, this would be the one. Suffice it to say that the final showdown between Laurie and Michael is absolutely awesome, well worth the overpriced tickets even if your theater doesn’t have big, comfy, heated seats. You don’t have to have seen the original, but it helps. Minimally, you need be familiar with the barest basics of the plot, which I’m sure a friend (or if you don’t have any friends, the Internet) can provide you with. Once you have that, take a stroll down to Haddonfield – it’s lovely this time of year.

DAY 27 (CONTINUED)

Title: Let the Right One In

Year Released: 2008

Rating: R

First viewing: No

My tagline: With friends like these, you won’t have any enemies.

Summary: Based on the novel by the same name, the plot follows a lonely, bullied boy as he befriends a sweet but peculiar girl who happens to be a vampire.

Terror trivia: The title refers to a particular myth about vampires – that they cannot enter someone’s house without being invited in.

My reaction: Years ago, when one of my friends became aware that I was an avid horror fan with a special interest in vampires, he recommended this movie to me. He described it as a “Swedish vampire movie,” a subgenre I had never come across before, so I was intrigued. Unless you’re familiar with Swedish, you’ll have to watch it dubbed or with subtitles (per that same friend’s suggestion, I watch it with subtitles), which I know can be a turnoff for some people. This is another one of those rare instances where I actually read the book, and from what I remember the movie is a fair representation of it. An American remake called Let Me In was released in 2010, and while it was a pretty good movie in its own right, I think the original far outshines it. Like The Haunting, this movie follows the mantra “less is more,” though not to the same extent as the former. Eli’s ability to fly, for example, is strongly implied but never shown, probably a good idea since realistically portraying people flying has always been a challenge in Hollywood. It either works really well or comes off as completely fake. Perhaps more importantly, there are a few incidents where the violence taking place is only hinted at, either by barely allowing us a flash or two of the action or simply by just showing us the aftermath. It’s a refreshing choice that goes to show the audience doesn’t necessarily need to bear witness to all the brutality in a story. One of the most notable touches, however, is a reference to the title and the idea that a vampire must be invited in. This is the only movie I know of that addresses what happens when a vampire enters sans invite, thus making it almost the opposite of the “less is more” stance…in this case more is more, and the scene is deeply moving. If you’re looking for a vampire movie that’s different, while still adhering to the archetypal vampire rules, this would be an excellent choice.

Do you have a movie you’d like to recommend? Do you have any thoughts on the movies I’ve already written about? If so, add your comments below…

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