“Santa Clarita” Essay in Lieu of a Conference Presentation

Drew Barrymore in Santa Clarita Diet (2017)

 

Two weeks ago, I was supposed to present a paper on “Santa Clarita Diet,” zombie narratives, and the monstrous-feminine on a panel at the Pop Culture Association Conference in Philly. I was looking forward to this all year, but alas, COVID-19 canceled it, along with every other conference. The conference organizers made the right move in canceling the event for everyone’s health and safety.

Luckily, the essay is available to read online, and it will eventually be available in print via The Schuylkill Valley Journal. I am incredibly grateful for this and the fact that folks can still access my work. Here is hoping that next year’s conference in Boston happens.

Stay safe and well everyone!

{Review} Shudder’s Cursed Films

How Shudder's Cursed Films Explores the Most Troubled Horror ...

Ever since the success of last year’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Shudder has been pumping out more exclusive horror documentaries. They have one coming out later this year focused on queer horror, and this month, they dropped Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series that explores horror films with alleged “curses” attached to them. Featured films include The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The CrowThe Omen, and The Twilight Zone Movie. Thus far, only the episode on The Exorcist has dropped, but for any horror aficionado, the 20-minute episodes are an entertaining look at some of the challenges that plagued the productions of these famous films, and in turn, led to clever marketing campaigns that increased ticket sales.

The Exorcist is the perfect example of how rumors of a cursed production could serve to cement a film’s legendary status. To be fair, the film’s production was plagued by a few unusual circumstances. Shooting was delayed after an on-set fire. Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died when the film was in post-production, and their characters died in the film. The aftermath and reactions to the film were so intense that people thought Linda Blair was actually evil because she played Regan.

Blair is the real star of the first episode, as she opens up about how difficult the filming process was because director William Friedkin pushed his actors and actresses so much that it led to a few on-site injuries. For instance, Blair injured her back when a piece of rigging broke, and Regan’s mother, actress Ellen Burstyn, was injured during a scene where Regan throws her across the room. The blood-curdling scream heard in that shot is a result of injury. Many of the film’s performances are unmatched in horror cinema because some of the pain was real.

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Much of this lore is already well-known, but what’s more intriguing is the impact The Exorcist had, especially when televangelists like Billy Graham stated that there was the power of evil within the film. This led to a brilliant marketing campaign that played up the hype and stories about people fainting and passing out in the theater.  The episode includes a trailer for The Exorcist that was never shown and played with the idea that the film itself was evil. Horror fans should watch the episode just to catch a glimpse of that long lost trailer. It’s a a relatively unknown piece of film history.

Fast forward to today, and the idea of possession is very much still in the public consciousness. Cursed Films credits The Exorcist’s legacy for that, and the end of the episode follows contemporary exorcists as they try to dispel demons from victims who genuinely believe that they’re possessed. Mind you, these people are not trained by the Catholic Church.  Yet, the episode poses the question  whether or not these modern demon-slayers are doing it out of the goodness of their heart or to make a quick buck. You decide.

Cursed Films doesn’t offer any evidence that the films were actually cursed. Rather, the series looks at the lore surrounding some of the genre’s most famous films, while offering some candid interviews with people like Linda Blair who are horror royalty. The behind-the-scenes tidbits and the exploration of a film’s legacy and its impact on popular culture make the series an interesting watch. The short episodes are binge-worthy.

Episodes 2 and 3 release today on Shudder.

{Film Review} Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

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No matter what, 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was always going to face some challenges. First, there is the simple fact that it’s a sequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 classic. Sequels generally have mixed critical reviews and lower box office success. By the end of its run, the film grossed$30 million, which is not bad, but a drop off from the original film’s $57 million box office haul. More notable are the risks that the film took. Freddy’s Revenge is essentially a possession story about the demon of the dream world overtaking the shy final boy Jesse (Mark Patton). The film spawned intense backlash over its not-so-subtle gay references and caused Patton to quit acting during the AIDS crisis. In the last few years, as Freddy’s Revenge has gained a following in the LGBT community, Patton has resurfaced to speak about the film, including in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.  The 90-minute doc is a must see for the way that it places the legacy of Freddy’s Revenge and Patton’s career within the larger framework and historical context of  LGBT history.

Directed by Tyler Jensen and Roman Chimienti, the film begins by following Mark in the present day, as he he makes his rounds on the horror convention circuit, meetings fans and celebrating the newfound viewership of the once-maligned sequel. It’s clear from the outset that Patton has aged and that shaking hands and signing autographs is an exhilarating, yet exhausting experience. Midway through the documentary, it’s revealed that Patton battled several illnesses at once, including HIV and cancer, after he quit acting in the mid-1980s.

Patton notes several times that he wants young LGBT fans to remember their history. The impact that the AIDS crisis had on Patton and the larger community is made more real by his commentary that’s mixed with news footage from the time period. There are chilling clips of patients bone-thin, bound to a hospital bed. At one point Patton comments that he knows what it’s like to see zombies walking down the street and that’s what it was like to be part of that community in the 1980s. Furthermore, Patton’s personal experience is placed in a larger historical context, namely the impact that AIDS had on Hollywood. Actors had to take blood tests before landing a role. The paparazzi outed men and killed their careers. Fear and paranoia swept the film business.

In that sense, Freddy’s Revenge takes on greater historical significance because it came out during the height of the AIDS crisis, and at the time, Patton was not out of the closet. Its gay undertones, including an S & M scene, a gay bay dream sequence, a leather daddy gym teacher, and few more subtle references, like a board game called probe in Jesse’s closet, made publications like The Village Voice refer to it as a gay film upon its release. Even to this day, however, screenwriter David Chaskin and director  Jack Sholder deny that they wanted to make a straight-up gay horror film. Only after conversations with Patton, including in the documentary, and more recent articles about the film have the director and screenwriter changed their tone.

Mark Patton in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

(Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Yet, the documentary also functions as a reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that being gay and out meant losing your job. Such was the case with Patton, whose agent told him that due to Freddy’s Revenge, he’d always be cast a gay character. Additionally, the initial backlash to the film was so immense that it carried over to the internet age, and the documentary highlights some of the online gay-bashing comments that Patton had to endure.

It took time and many years, but Freddy’s Revenge finally found its audience, and one of the most endearing aspects of the documentary are interviews with young, gay fans talking about how much a character like Jesse matters to them, how they could relate to his character when they were teenagers. Furthermore, the documentary is a reminder that the horror genre has always been about Otherness, and in that regard, Freddy’s Revenge is indeed the gayest horror film ever made. My Scream Queen should cement its legacy as such and finally give Patton his justified due for the amount of work he’s done on behalf of the gay community after walking away from acting and surviving the AIDS crisis. This is an important documentary, not only for the horror community, but perhaps more importantly, for the LGBT community. It’s a reminder just how much representation matters.

{Film Review} The Hunt

TheHunt

 

In a way, you have to feel bad for Universal/Blumhouse’s The Hunt. First, after two mass shootings in 2019, the film was yanked from Blumhouse’s schedule due to its supposed plot about liberal elites gunning down right-wing Americans. The right-wing stratosphere reacted to the term”deplorables” in the script, seemingly used to refer to a murdered American. Of course, the president tweeted, pointing a finger at “racist Hollywood.”  The movie finally had a theatrical release on March 13, amid the Coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood that people will avoid movie theaters. At this point, Blumhouse/Universal has decided to release the film, along with The Invisible Man, on VOD starting this Friday. At long last, more people can see the movie.

The truth is that The Hunt is not a right-wing hit piece. For the most part, it’s a bloody,  B-movie romp that skewers both sides. From the outset, it’s clear that the film is never going to take itself too seriously. In the opening minutes, a victim wakes up on an airplane, occupied by the “liberal elites.” The airplane is flying to “The Manor,” where the games are set to begin. Of course, he realizes what’s going on and tries to stop it, but he’s killed by Hilary Swank’s icy Athena, who shoves her heel into his eyeball.

From there, the narrative shifts to The Manor, where the captives are released in a field with gags locked to their mouths. They flee for safety amid a shower of bullets. Heads literally explode. Captives step on landmines. One young woman falls on a spike…twice. Just as the camera focuses on one character,  for oh, two or three minutes, making you think they’re going to be the protagonist, they’re then taken out with a grenade or bullet. Eventually, the audience is introduced to the actual protagonist Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a tough veteran who takes out the “elites” one by one, be it with bullets or some seriously impressive kickboxing movies. Crystal is the only character given any semblance of  a story, other than maybe Athena, but even so, their stories are light. In fact, that’s one of the film’s real flaws. It’s hard to relate to any of these characters. Athena and Crystal kick ass, but we hardly know anything about them. The rest of the characters are mostly fodder with some funny one-liners about gun control, climate change, and “snowflakes.”

Crystal

Crystal played by Betty Gilpin/Photo Courtesy of Universal/Blumhouse

There are plenty of movies that do political satire better. John Carpenter’s They Live is the most obvious example. That said, there is one scene in particular between Crystal and Athena that gets into a heavy debate about internet conspiracy theories and truth. It’s an impressive bit of acting and script writing that makes for a poignant scene. Additionally, the film makes it clear that we should be careful about judging others before we hear and understand their whole story. In fact, the film illustrates well just how much Americans with opposing views distrust each other.

All of that said, The Hunt is fairly hollow but fun movie that isn’t afraid to be absurd. There’s a t-shirt-wearing pig named Orwell (after Animal Farm), for heaven’s sake.The film is probably not going to change anyone’s thinking, but those who assume that they know what the movie is about should actually see it. Americans on both sides of the political aisle will find something to laugh about. The Hunt is certainly a violent movie, but there is such an over-the-top, Eli Roth-style factor to the gore that it’s outlandish. As Americans hoard TP and worry about loved ones, rightfully so, we need to laugh. A little satire is healthy.

A Rebirth of the Classic Universal Monsters?

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(Photo Courtesy of Blumhouse/Universal)

Now that Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (Read my review at Signal Horizon) grossed nearly $50 million at the box office this weekend, it seems likely Universal will green-light other reboots/remakes of their classic monsters. Unlike 2017’s The Mummy, Whannell’s film was a huge success, especially when you factor in that it had a budget of only $7 million. There are several reasons why I think this project worked.

  • It was a single, self-contained story. Unlike The Mummy, The Invisible Man didn’t try to launch an entire Dark Universe. It simply focused on one main character, Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), and her abusive ex, aka The Invisible Man.
  • It updated the story. The movie resonates because it feels timely in the age of the MeToo movement and powerful men going to jail or abusing women.
  • It was actually…. scary and suspenseful. What’s more terrifying than an unrelenting ex who you can’t see? The score helped, too.
  • Moss’ performance was stellar. Enough said.

Whannell just signed a first-look deal with Universal/Blumhouse, meaning they’ll most likely have him direct other projects, which could mean other reiterations of the classic monsters. The Invisible Man contains a formula for successful reboots of other classic monsters, namely, keep the story simple. Don’t try to build some grandiose universe. Give us a monster. Give us victims.

Which monsters would you like to see hit the big screen next?

Willful Monstrosity

Willful

Women in Horror Month is winding down, but it’s not quite over yet. Before the month passes, I want to recommend Natalie Wilson’s new book Willful Monstrosity: Race and Gender in 21st Century Horror (McFarland). It’s one of the best academic books on the genre that I’ve read within the last few years. Split into four sections, zombies, vampires, witches, and women, Wilson’s text is a fine addition to contemporary horror scholarship and an analysis of how the monster has evolved into a “willful subject,” one that refuses to stay in its place and abide by society’s standards. Wilson gives a close analysis to film, television, and literature, with close readings of genre favorites like Get Out, Let the Right One In, Netflix’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “The Walking Dead,” and so much more. Though Wilson’s focus is on 21st Century horror, the entirety of her project is in conversation with horror history and the evolution of the monster.

For more info about the book, check out my reviewfor Signal Horizon.

Happy reading!

In Honor of Women in Horror Month

Girl

Did you know that February is Women in Horror Month? 

This international, grassroots initiative was started within the last few years as a means to support and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries.

In honor of that, I put together a list of 10 films directed by women to watch through the month of February.  You can read the list over at HorrOrigins.

Most of my films are from the 2000s, but it should be noted that women-directed horror films go all the way back to 1953 and The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino.

 

Are there any films that you’d add to the list?

Gretel and Hansel: A Mesmerizing Take on the Classic Fairy Tale

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Most horror fans know Oz Perkins by this point. As a director, the son of Anthony Perkins made a name for himself in 2015 with The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a bleak take on the typical exorcism story, complete with moody visuals that often surpassed narrative and story. The same is true of his follow-up, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a brooding ghost story. Perkins’ latest feature, Gretel and Hansel, retells the classic Grimm’s  Fairy Tale, and like his previous features, it’s more concerned with establishing a haunting world and showcasing the visual over the narrative. The result is a film that feels like something A24 would have released, an art house horror flick that may not find a broad audience because of its emphasis on imagery and a slow burn. That said, there are enough horror fans tired of the formulaic jump scares that may find something to like in Perkins’ dark fairy tale.

Generally, Gretel and Hansel is the story we all know. It features three main characters, Gretel (Sophia Lillis), Hansel (Samuel Leakey), and the witch/Holda (Alice Krige). Yet, it’s clear from the outset that Perkins and writer Rob Hayes chose to emphasize Gretel’s story above all else. In this retelling, she’s older than her brother, and in the opening minutes, we see her attend a job interview for a man who insists that she call him “my lord” and then implies that she could be of use to him only in a sexual context. She refuses, and soon enough, Gretel and Hansel’s mom toss them out when they don’t bring home income. The siblings are then left to find their way in the meandering, dark woods and ultimately stumble upon the witch’s house. Instead of a gingerbread house, Perkins created a triangle-shaped dwelling that has a peephole near the front door, where the siblings see a scrumptious feast that’s more than enough to satiate their grumbling tummies.

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures

From there, the story takes a slightly different turn. The witch is interested in mentoring Gretel and unleashing her feminine power. However, one main plot hole involves the witch’s intentions. It’s rather unclear if she truly wants to guide the young woman or has more nefarious plans in mind, like shoving her into an oven. The plot is not meaty enough to really offer an answer, and due to the narrative ambiguity, it’s left for the viewer to decide. Regardless, witches have often been associated with feminine power throughout folklore and horror history, so it’s nice to see Perkins align his film with said history.

The rest of the film is a visual feast. Inside the house, there are shots of gleaming serving trays that hold plump turkey legs and fat pastries, while the exterior shots feature shadowy, leaf-strewn paths and gnarled tree branches that go a long way in establishing both the mood and the world. The imagery of red smoke billowing from the chimney is also  quite effective. Additionally, the hellish dreams that Gretel has once she accepts the witch’s lodging add to the grim tale. However, the most arresting visuals  occur whenever the younger version of Holda (Jessica De Gouw) appears. The raven-haired, pale-skinned character is simply spellbinding, especially during the climax.

Perkins succeeded in creating a captivating world in Gretel and Hansel, and the fact he emphasized Gretel’s story offers a new take on a well-known fairy tale. It’s hard to say, however, if this film will find a large audience, despite its wide release. It’s very much an art house horror film that isn’t for everyone, but if you like slow burn horror that’s emphasizes the visual, sometimes more than than the narrative, then Gretel and Hansel is worth the price of admission.

 

 

A Little Poem about My Favorite Slasher

JasonLives

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

About 10 years ago, Boston Literary Magazine was one of the first magazines to publish any of my work.  Prior to the acceptance, I had a few rejections  but remained persistent and kept writing and  revising, spurred on by editor Robin Stratton’s encouragement. Over the last few years, the magazine was on hiatus, but recently, it returned with a lengthy comeback issue. I’m deeply appreciative that my poem “The First Time I Watched a Friday the 13th” was included. I’ll forever be grateful to BLM for taking a chance on my work years ago, and I’m thrilled to have a new piece in the comeback issue. You can read it here or read it below.

 

The First Time I Watched a Friday the 13th

My mom kept watch on the sunflower recliner,

her brown eyes peering over pages of a paperback,

while I leaned towards the TV, inserted a VHS—

Friday the 13th Pt. 4.

 

I ran my hands over the sleeve—

the black holes of Jason’s hockey mask,

the silver knife that gleamed like moonlight

over Camp Crystal Lake.

 

I clapped at the first appearance of hulking Jason

power walking through the woods, stalking

first victims, camp counselors that guzzled beers,

traded joints back and forth like secret notes.

 

My mother said nothing about first kills—

a machete to the head, an arrow between the eyes,

the gasps of victims before the camera pulled away

and Jason dragged their bodies to the woods.

 

It wasn’t until two counselors disrobed,

reached for the buttons of each other’s shorts

that mom rose from her chair, stormed towards the TV,

seized the tape, clicked her tongue in disgust.

 

For months I searched for the VHS, like goods

thieved from me I wanted to reclaim. I never finished

that scene, the kill that always follows sex in slasher flicks.

 

My mother, too,was a moral judge,

wanting to shield my eyes from the female form,

from the mysteries of sex a 10-year-old wanted to ask.