Recently, I wrote a feature story on the films What Keeps You Alive (2018), currently streaming on Netflix, and Honeymoon (2014), one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. The article looks at how both films have a monster who is a significant other and use a rural setting to invoke the Otherness/monster. It’s a terrifying premise, that the one we love isn’t who we think they are. The article appears over at Signal Horizon. Check it out if you’re so inclined!
I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of most survival films. The only one I really enjoy and still re-watch is Into the Wild. That had the advantage of being based on Jon Krakauer’s book and thorough research. It also had the benefit of featuring an incredibly sympathetic, idealistic protagonist, Chris McCandless. I also go back and reach Jack London’s short fiction from time to time and have taught it in American Lit and Literature and the Environment, but as for survival stories, that’s about as far as I go.
Recently, I was given a screener for Centigrade, IFC Midnight’s new film about a couple trapped in a car in artic Norway. (My full review here for HorrOrigins). There are a few aspects of the film that appeal to me. The fact its setting is so centralized and so small, specifically a car, intrigued me. A lot of well-known survival stories take place in actual nature, so I was intrigued by the idea of an interior setting within the larger naturalistic and unforgiving setting. Additionally, the film only has two characters, Matt (Vincent Piazza) and Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez). Because the setting is so specific and so claustrophobic, it allows their story to slowly unravel, specifically issues within their relationship, exacerbated by their perilous situation.
Additionally, the film was shot in an ice cream freezer for 3-4 days at a time, as director Brendan Walsh wanted to make the setting as real as possible, including encouraging Rodriguez and Piazza to fast while shooting to feel an actual sense of hunger and starvation. That said, the film toys with the idea that the story was based on a true story, but the characters are entirely fictional. It’s only based on a handful of accounts and research Walsh did about people trapped under feet of snow who somehow survived.
While parts of the story are a bit outlandish, Centigrade is one of the more intriguing survival thrillers I’ve seen in some time. The film just dropped on VOD.
If you’re a horror fan, and if you have four hours to kill during these sweltering summer days, then I recommend checking out In Search of Darkness on Shudder.Written and directed by David A. Weiner, the doc goes year by year through some of the most iconic films of the decade. It also features interviews with the likes of Kane Hodder, Heather Langenkamp, John Carpenter, Barbra Crampton, just to name a few.
Additionally, the film tackles key characteristics and tropes that made the 1980s such a vibrant time for the genre. Is the doc perfect? No. I can think of several films that should have been featured, as opposed to some of the Friday the 13th sequels. I also question why some big names were left out of the doc. Tom Savini anyone? Maybe, he wasn’t available. Who knows. That said, it’s a must-see for horror fans and a heck of a lot of fun. For my full thoughts on In Search of Darkness, check out the review I did for HorrOrigins.
The last week has seen the release of two films by first-time directors that I’m confident will end up on several year-end, best-of horror movie lists.
The first is the Shudder exclusive The Beach House, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown. The film follows two 20-somethings whose relationship is at a crossroads, and in an attempt to salvage it, they spend a weekend at the beach. Yet, it turns into an aquatic nightmare for them as an environmental contagion takes over the town. The movie has such a sense of dread, especially in its last act, that it may not be for everyone. But it’s one of the most effective ecological films and body horror flicks that I’ve seen in a while. Anyone into Lovecraftian horror should check it out. I reviewed it for HorrOrigins. The review is fairly spoiler free.
The second film, which released one day after The Beach House, is IFC Midnight’s Relic, marking the debut of Natalie Erika James. While The Beach House serves up summer scares and mostly takes place in daylight, Relic’s atmosphere and palate is far darker. Largely set in a creaky countryside home surrounded by a thick forest, the movie highlights the ravages of dementia. It’s a devastating, somber film that’s drawn comparisons to Hereditary and The Babadook. I also reviewed this one for HorrOrigins. I have no doubt Relic is a film that will continue to build buzz and will be talked about over the next several years. It’s the perfect example of how horror is the perfect vehicle to address more serious issues, in this case the aging process.
Pay attention to Brown and James. Their strong debuts make for promising careers ahead.
Anyone that knows me on a personal level well, or anyone who has read any of my poetry collections, knows that I lost my dad to cancer. I was young when this happened, and by young I mean 20, a junior in college. It happened fast. He was diagnosed by the end of my winter break that year, and by February, he died. When I learned of his diagnosis, I remember walking in the January cold, trying to process the news that my dad had throat cancer. I didn’t cry. I don’t even think I screamed. I do remember how tightly I clenched my fists that hung at my sides as I walked. Yet, I knew something was wrong after he picked me up from college and stopped on the side of the PA Turnpike to vomit. He also thinned since I saw him last. Only a month or so into the new semester, I received a call that I had to come home again because my father was essentially on his death bed, and I remember that drive home with my sister and the emotions that ran through us both that blustery February day, as we knew driving home meant we were driving home to say goodbye to our dad.
Last year, I was asked to write a piece of flash non-fiction for the Schuylkill Valley Journal’s blog for an “Origin of Interest” series they ran. I was asked to write one about my love of the horror genre. It didn’t take me long to start writing. Some of the best memories I have between my father and I involve watching films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and Friday the 13th with him. He took me to Blockbuster many Friday nights, where I roamed the aisles and picked out another horror VHS rental. Beyond that, he also fed and supported my obsession to turn my childhood home into a graveyard every Halloween, complete with mannequins that occupied the porch, including Dracula in a coffin and a bloody chef. He worked wonders with fishing wire.
In honor of Father’s Dad and my dad, I’m sharing again that piece I wrote for the SVJ blog.
To all the dads out there, Happy Fathers Day.
Josephine Decker’s Shirley is a movie I want to show to all of my creative writing classes and then discuss its portrayal of the writing process. Elisabeth Moss is brillant as the famed horror writer, but beyond her spellbinding performance, there are a lot of layers to discuss.
First, the film plays with the perceptions of Jackson, that she was a witch, that she was sick in the head. It also depicts her as an outsider in the small college town, where her husband teaches literature at Bennington. Perhaps most importantly, when thinking about writing students, the film shows that writing is hard work. There is no illusion in that regard. Jackson becomes obsessed with her second novel, Hangsaman, about a missing college girl. In a fevered state of mind, Jackson works on new pages literally from morning until night, through dinner. There is no muse that just shows up. She goes to the desk.
Additionally, Decker is focused on portraying the struggles women faced in the 1950s to be heard, even someone with Jackson’s success. There is a fictitious subplot about a young couple that feeds this larger narrative. In the context of the film, it works.
With theaters still closed due to COVID-19, film distributors have had to find creative ways to get their films shown. IFC Midnight took a risk by releasing some of their newer titles at drive-ins, including The Wretched, a witch creature feature written and directed by brothers Drew and Brett Pierce. The result of IFC’s move is the fact that a small indie horror film is now the #1 film in the country.
I interviewed the Pierce brothers for HorrOrigins. We talked about their dad’s work on The Evil Dead, their love of independent and genre cinema, and the success of their film. The story of their success is also the story of the film industry right now. With theaters closed, distributors, especially smaller ones, need to find a way to reach audiences. Now, IFC Midnight is releasing more of their films at drive-ins. Does this mean the pandemic will cause a revival of the drive-in? That remains to be seen. Theaters will reopen, maybe as soon as mid-late summer, but who knows if they’ll sell many tickets. Drive-ins offer a safe alternative. For now, at least, The Wretched is the story of a small indie film succeeding in incredibly tough circumstances. That’s a story worth celebrating.
Due to COVID-19, theaters are still closed. Streaming services are the only means to view new content, other than drive-ins. The releases of bigger horror films, like Candyman and Antebellum, have been delayed. As a result, this has given the chance for indie films to find an audience. Recently, an article at AV Club caught my attention regarding the success of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. It snagged Amazon Prime’s top-trending title last month, during the height of isolation. Though initially hesitant to watch the flick, namely because it sounded gimmicky, I gave it a stream. On the one hand, the low-budget film (shot for $60,000), has a few aspects going for it, namely its 1970s aesthetic. That said, the plot and characters are too thin, and the result is a film that doesn’t add up to much of a cohesive plot or narrative arc.
Directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini, Antrum is initially about “the deadliest film ever made,” so cursed that a theater in Budapest burned down when it screen the film in 1988. Faux film reviewers and horror hounds are interviewed in the opening minutes, and it’s a clever use of the exhausted found footage subgenre. It builds hype for the movie within a movie, that is the story of Oralee (Nicole Tompkins) and Nathan (Rowan Smyth), siblings who embark on an adventure to dig a hole to the pits of hell to rescue their recently euthanized dog because Nathan has visions he’s been sent to the fiery place, for whatever reason. Oralee locates a spot, telling her brother it’s where Lucifer landed when he was kicked out of heaven. They grab shovels and start digging, and that’s about as much of a plot as the film offers.
From there, the story loses its narrative and descends into a film of bizarre, often disjointed images, some of them unsettling. There are strange noises in the woods. At one point, an image of Lucifer’s face lingers on the screen longer than the creepy flashes of Pazuzu’s face that haunt The Exorcist. There are even a few Nazis hanging around a massive demonic statue, but they serve no real purpose to the plot, other than a sense of danger.
If you set narrative gripes aside, the film deserves some props for the way it was shot, mimicking 1970s Satanic cult films. The grainy quality serves the film well, especially when juxtaposed with some of the images that flash on screen. It’s a clever aesthetic and perhaps the best aspect of Antrum.
There’s also something to be said for the attention the film has garnered. The AV Club article notes that when it payed at film festivals in 2018, it caught the attention of Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project, the film that started the found footage hype back in 1999. Like Antrum, The Blair Witch Project used found footage to bend reality. It had one of the most clever marketing campaigns in all of horror history, creating missing person posters for its three lead actors and a website during the early days of the internet dedicated to their “disappearance.” Antrum uses fake interviews to hype what follows in the rest of the film.
Antrum won’t have the legacy and influence of The Blair Witch Project. No other found footage film will, but it does do something unique and interesting with the tired found footage genre. It’s slow-hype and word of mouth, including teens on TikTok debating if Antrum is actually a cursed film, is commendable, especially for a film shot on a budget of $60,000 by a studio (Uncork’d Entertainment) known for knock-offs and b movies. COVID has given some indie movies a bigger audience. Give Antrum a stream. Ignore its narrative in-cohesion and enjoy its 70s Satanic art house aesthetic.
It’s been a busy month of May, and I wanted to share some recent writing projects that are now out in the world.
First, Daryl Sznyter and I had the honor or interviewing Xavier Neal-Burgin, director of the outstanding documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. You can read the interview over at HorrOrigins. If you haven’t seen the doc, watch it. Even if you’re a film history buff or horror fan, I promise you that you’ll learn something new.
Recently, Horror Homeroom put together a journal in honor of the 40-year anniversary of Friday the 13th. The articles address a far range of topics, including the portrayal of masculinity in the franchise and critical reception to the films. I have an article in the issue entitled “No Clowning Around: The Comedic and Gothic Elements of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.” Check out the journal entitled Friday the 13th at 40 and enjoy!
Lastly, I have an interview with Coralie Fargeat, director of Revenge, out in Signal Horizon Magazine. Check it out!
Just when you think the zombie genre is exhausted, along comes a film that rewrites the tropes and feels incredibly relevant for the era. Canadian director Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore full-length Blood Quantum is such a film. It’s highly entertaining, gory, and rife with social commentary about the erasure of Indigenous peoples. It’s the type of zombie movie that you wish George A. Romero was still around to see.
Featuring a nearly all-Ingenious cast, the film is set on the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow, where, oddly enough, Indigenous inhabitants are immune to a zombie plague. In the first scene, gutted salmon come back to life, their tales flapping. Not long after, dogs reanimate, snarling and looking for a meal. Six months later, the world is a hellscape.
Throughout the 90-minute run-time, the film tackles a number of issues, including addiction, isolation, absent fathers, inter-generational violence, trauma, and, of course, colonization. Even the film’s title implores the viewer to research its meaning. Once the six month period hits, the zombie narrative takes on an entirely different meaning, as the Ingenious characters suddenly find themselves with real power, left to determine which white people are allowed on the rez, inspecting them for bites and other potential threats.
Watch the trailer below:
Michael Greyeyes as Traylor, a sheriff, is a subdued type of hero, initially called to investigate a strange set of circumstances way beyond his control. He also serves as a moral compass of sorts, trying to ensure that a fair set of rules and ethics are enforced. Yet, he’s not without his flaws. He had a messy split with his ex, Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse who evolves into quite the survivor. His sons, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) and Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), mention more than once how absent he was in their life.
The sons are another matter entirely, well-written and well-drawn, total opposites. Lysol reflects a simmering anger and rage that the outbreak only exacerbates. Joseph, meanwhile, displays more of his father’s better attributes. He is calm and level-headed. His relationship with a white girl, Charlie (Olivia Scriven), however, only deepens the tensions and opposing world views between he and his brother.
Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon)
The best zombie movies are the ones that hold a mirror up to our society and make us ask how we’d react when the world goes to hell. During COVID-19, Blood Quantum couldn’t be more timely. It makes us pay attention to a people that have often been erased and it gives us their story. This is a movie about zombies, sure, and there’s plenty of gore and cool kills, but this is also a story about father and sons and a people that have always survived. The film is rich in symbolism, from the names ( Joseph, the first father), to some of the settings (a church that contains some of the film’s most brutal violence), to wise quotes about the our treatment of the Earth and perhaps a greater reason and purpose for the outbreak. The film carries on the tradition of social commentary in the zombie film, while focusing on a much different narrative that needs to be told. Blood Quantum is smart and wildly entertaining. Give it your attention.
Blood Quantum is streaming on Shudder now.