With the year winding down, it’s time for another best-of list! This is a piece that I wrote for Signal Horizon, naming my favorite exclusive and original content on the horror streaming network, Shudder. My larger best-of horror list for 2021 is coming, and it’s likely at least 1-2 of these picks will end up on that broader list. You can read my Shudder list here.
Believe it or not, in 2021, we’re going to have a never-before-seen Ceorge A. Romero movie. That film is The Amusement Park, shot in 1973 for the Luterhan Society as a means to raise awareness about elderly abuse. The film was lost for years but recently restored and rediscovered thanks to the George A. Romero Foundation and IndieCollect. Shot between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the 53-minute-long film debuts on Shudder on June 8.
There are no zombies in this one, but it’s on par with some of the most terrifying films the master of horror has ever directed. The amusement park concept stands as a terrifying and surreal allegory about the way we abuse the elderly. Lincoln Maazel’s nameless character suffers one abuse after another, from ticket vendors, to a biker gang, to dismissive youth who walk by as he writhes on the ground in pain. No supernatural elements are needed in this nightmareish vision of a careless and cruel society. Romero has always presented humans as worse than the monster, and this certainly rings true here.
For more of my thoughts on the film, check out my review for Signal Horizon.
The horror genre continues to redefine itself in the age of #MeToo and the 21st Century, rewriting old tropes, specifically the rape/revenge subgenre. I’m thinking of movies like M.F.A. (2017),Revenge, and to some extent, Promising Young Woman (2020). The latest is Violation, which released late last week on Shudder after its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year. The general premise is familiar for the subgenre. A young woman, Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer), is raped by her sister’s husband. However, where the film goes from there is a wild, brutal affair, one that challenges expectations and also underscores the fallout and PTSD the protagonist endures after the rape and subsequent vengeance. Further, Violation makes a spectacle of the male, a reversal of standard horror rules.
Violation is a film I keep thinking about weeks after I first saw it and reviewed it for HorrOrigins (you can read the full review here). It’s another film that marks a change in the subgenre and an exciting future, filled with possibilities of what the genre can be when more women get behind the camera (the film was co-directed by Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli). Violation undoes traditional horror spectacle, while focusing mostly not on the blood and revenge, but rather the aftermath.
I wanted to share this interview that I did with Nora Unkel for Signal Horizon Magazine. Unkel directed the Shudder exclusive A Nightmare Wakes, a retelling of the Frankenstein creation story and Mary Shelley’s life. It’s the first film I can think of that places the 19th Century female author front and center of the Frankenstein story, including her turbulent relationship with Percy and the struggles she had as a female writer.
It’s a new year, and with that, the streaming service Shudder is dropping 11 new movies across 11 weeks. The first is Hunted, a wild take on Little Red Riding Hood directed and written by Vincent Paronnaud. The film has some stellar cinematography and imagery, but it doesn’t do anything new with the female revenge subgenre and pales in comparison to similar films like Revenge (2017) and The Nightingale (2019).
Eve (Lucie Debay) is a site manager who needs an escape from her overbearing boss, so she wanders into a seedy bar where she has to deal with an overly aggressive man who insists on buying her drink, most likely expecting sex in return. Eve shoots him down and is assisted by “the guy” (Arieh Worthalter), a misogynist who lures Eve into his car, and with the help of his accomplice (Ciaran O’Brien), kidnaps her. After an accident, Eve escapes into the woods and the rest of the film becomes a hunt and chase scenario.
The fairy tale concept works well. Fairy tales have always had a dark underbelly. Eve’s red winter coat aligns her even more with the Little Red Riding Hood character, but instead of being chased by a big bad wolf, she’s chased by two men. As the tag line of the film says, “The company of wolves is better than that of man.”
Debay gives a strong performance through and through. It’s a delight to see her channel her anger and become the hunter with the help of the woods. Worthalter makes for a good villain, a deplorable brute who gets off by watching sexist snuff films he recorded. The imagery and cinematography, including sweeping shots of the woods and close-ups of wolves and snakes, are another strength.
The film’s main issue is that it doesn’t do anything different with the female revenge subgenre and add to the conversation. We’ve seen this plot several times before, and while it’s always great to see women kicking ass against gross men, there’s nothing ground-breaking here. The idea of nature linking with female energy to topple a hostile man has also been done before, most recently in Coralie Fargeat’s brilliant Revenge. Just replace the desert with the forest in this case.
What a year it’s been. From the pandemic, to the U.S. election that felt like it was 10 years long, this was a hard year. The horror genre, meanwhile, continued to have resounding success and always does best during periods of anxiety. The Invisible Man posted major box office numbers. “Lovecraft County” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” were huge hits on their respective streaming services, and the little indie film Host reinvented the found footage genre for the Zoom/pandemic age, much in the way that The Blair Witch Project rewrote the rules of the genre in 1999.
Before I offer my list, let me note one trendline that I noticed this year. OLD IS BACK. What do I mean by this? Well, H.P. Lovecraft is huge again. “Lovecraft Country,” based on Matt Ruff’s novel, is one example. Even in my creative writing classes, I have more and more students writing Lovecraft-like stories with otherwordly monsters and an indifferent universe. This year’s first big horror flick was Underwater, an aquatic film that rips off both Alien and the big guy himself, Cthulhu. The underwater scenes are as bleak and hopeless as the worlds in Lovecraft’s stories.
Further, there’s been a return to classic Gothic films/books. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is a contemporary take on Henry James’ stories, mostly The Turn of the Screw. The Invisible Man reinvented the H.G. Wells’ monster and had so much success that Universal now plans to reboot other classic monsters. Instead of a dark universe, they’re planning individual films, hoping to replicate the success The Invisible Man. We’ll probably be seeing the Gil-man, Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Bride back on the big screen at some point.
Now, on to the list! Unlike past years, these are not numbered. I can’t pick a specific favorite film.
The Lodge (Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)
If you thought Franz and Fiala’s Goodnight, Mommy (2014) was brutal, especially its ending, then The Lodge may be too much. There’s nothing pleasant in the film. Nothing. No humor. No quips. This entire movie feels claustrophobic and frigid. After a father abruptly departs for work, his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), is left alone with his two children. A blizzard traps her in the remote cabin with the kids, where she’s haunted by the past and religious fanaticism. I saw this film in February when it was released in theaters, and boy, did that mid-winter night feel so much colder after viewing this.
Swallow (Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis)
This is a quiet little indie flick and one of a few films released by IFC that made my list. They had a very good year from a horror perspective. This film reminds me a lot of Rosemary’s Baby. Everyone thinks that they know what’s best for Hunter (Haley Bennett). The men want to control her, especially her hubby, Richie (Austin Stowell). So, she takes to swallowing objects, everything from a thumbtack to a marble, and in an odd way, it gives her some agency. (Read my review of Swallow for HorrOrigins). The conversations and break down of communication between Hunter and Richie are some of the most memorable scenes I’ve watched all year.
The Vast of Night (Directed by Andrew Patterson)
I can’t say enough about this film and how inventive it is. It’s a story about UFOs that’s all about the storytelling, using the technology from the 1950s, especially radio broadcasts, to spin its spooky narrative. You don’t even really see the bright lights or little green men. You don’t need to. Everything is relayed through the hair-raising dialogue and storytelling. But more so, the film is about two people, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), who want to escape their small town. They dream of something bigger, and they get swept up in something much larger than themselves. (Read my review of The Vast of Night for Signal Horizon Magazine).
The Invisible Man (Directed by Leigh Whannel)
Director Leigh Whannel’s stock has really been rising within the horror community. After creating Saw with James Wan, Whannel’s career didn’t take off the way that Wan’s did, but then The Invisible Man happened this year, a major box office hit and collaboration between Blumhouse and Universal Studios. The film rewrote Wells’ monster and made him a metaphor for domestic abuse. The film is terrifying, bolstered by Elisabeth Moss’ harrowing performance. After the film’s massive success, Universal green-lit a slew of Universal Monsters reboots. COVID has delayed filming schedules, but there will be plenty more classic monsters in the coming years. Whannell, meanwhile, signed a two-picture, first-look deal with Blumhouse directly after the film’s release. (Read my review of The Invisible Man for Signal Horizon Magazine).
The Wretched (Directed by Drew and Brett Pierce)
I’m as intrigued by the story of The Wretched as I am by the film itself. This movie was #1 at the box office a few weeks in a row, thanks to IFC’s wise decision to screen it a drive-ins. This indie film became a major hit! It’s a positive story from the pandemic year. Also, this movie is just a lot of fun. It’s a throw-back to 80s films and practical effects with a few Hitchcock references thrown in. The witch also looks really, really damn cool. (Read my review of The Wretched for Signal Horizon Magazine. Read my interview with the directors for HorrOrigins).
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Directed by/Written by/Starring Jim Cummings)
When was the last time we had a really good werewolf movie? Ginger Snaps (2000)is the last one that comes to mind for me. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a thoroughly enjoyable werewolf flick, but at the center of it is a family drama. The lead, John Marshell (Cummings), is an officer in a small Utah town. Oh, and he’s an alcoholic. His life is frayed. His wife divorced him, and the stress of trying to solve the town’s murders may push him over the edge at any moment. The film has SO much heart, humor, and stellar cinematography. It also makes for a good holiday film with its snowy setting and Christmas music playing in the background. (Read my review for HorrOrigins).
La Llorona (Directed by Jayro Bustamante)
If you are a horror fan, then you need to subscribe to the streaming service Shudder. Period. Year after year, they put out some of the best international and domestic films in the genre. La Llorona is one of the films they released this year, and it feels SO important, especially in the context of right-wing populism’s rise internationally over the last few years. In Guatemala, Alma is murdered with her children during a military attack. Thirty years later, the general who ordered the genocide is found not guilty, and Alma comes back to the world of the living to torment Gen. Enrique. This film is so haunting, especially in its portrayal of genocide and how those ghosts impact the present. This film is also a warning about strong men and how a country can collapse under authoritarian rule.
Relic (Directed by Natalie Erika James)
This is the final IFC film on my list. Few films recently have moved me as much as Relic, a story about dementia and a family’s struggles in dealing with the matriarch’s decline. Yes, there are scary scenes in this, but the film is more about witnessing a family member’s ailing mental health and being helpless to stop it. The house becomes a metaphor for a ravaged mind. The ending is one of the most poetic that I’ve seen in a while. I can’t wait to see what James does next. (Read my review of Relic for HorrOrigins).
His House (Directed by Remi Weekes)
Netflix’s horror selection is REALLY hit or miss, but then along comes a film like His House that totally reinvents the haunted house genre to tell the story of a refugee couple who flees war-torn Sudan. This film is creepy and atmospheric, but its real importance lies in the story that it has to tell.
Blood Quantum (Directed by Jeff Barnaby)
Once again, Shudder has more than one entry on my best-of, year-end list. Blood Quantum is important for SO many reasons. It’s directed by a Native filmmaker and features an all-Native cast. It totally rewrites the zombie genre to tell a story about erasure, survival, and reclaiming history. Like George A. Romero before him, Barnaby understands why zombies work so well as social metaphors. Oh, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film with lots of gore, too. Before I say anymore about this one, just go watch it, please.
Runner-ups and Honorable Mentions:Host, Shirley, Becky, The Devil to Pay, The Beach House, Color Out of Space
Let’s hope that next year is an easier year for all of us. Maybe we’ll finally get Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot in theaters and Halloween Kills by next October. Be safe everyone!
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 Crow, The 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.
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.
Every neighborhood has a spook house. Maybe it’s that corner property with an overgrown lawn, flaked paint, and boarded-up windows. Maybe it’s a Boo Radley-type house where neighborhood kids dare each other to entice the hermit to come out. For me, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and having a love of all things spooky and horror-related, I heard about the Smurl house in West Pittston. The family’s claims that they were terrorized by unfriendly spirits became so famous in 1986 that it created a media sensation. People lined up and down the block on Chase Street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the paranormal. The Smurl family’s story even garnered the attention of renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who, unlike others, believed that something abnormal occurred in that home. The Smurls never quite garnered the long-standing attention of some of the Warrens’ other cases, namely Amityville, and their story has yet to be the subject of a Conjuring film (here’s hoping!), but thanks to Shudder obtaining the rights to the 1991 made-for-tv movie The Haunted, the Smurl story can find a new audience in the 21st Century.
The general story of the Smurls is a familiar one about parents trying to find stability and do what’s best for their family. After they were displaced by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, Janet and Jack Smurl moved their family to the West Pittston home, and not long after, they claimed to have experienced uncanny incidents. Items would disappear. Doors would open and close. Toilets would flush. They’d lose sleep over growling noises and putrid stenches. Over the years, the Smurls said that the paranormal attacks worsened. Jack claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a spirit. The entities attacked the children and even the family dog. Eventually, after the Catholic Church slow-walked an investigation, the Smurls decided to go to the press, which created a media frenzy. Writing about the sensation for a 2016 Halloween story in Pittston Progress, reporter Jack Smiles summarized the immense media attention. “After the Smurls went public with their descriptions of what was happening in their modest, half-double home on Chase Street in West Pittston, their story became a media phenomena going ‘viral’ the old-fashioned way — through print and television. Local and out-of-town stations and papers covered it. Wire services stories ran in major dailies from New York to California.”
The article also quotes neighbor Bill Watson, who had to deal with the intense glare of media spotlight and the circus-like atmosphere outside of his house. “Everything got out of control,” Watson said. “CNN was here on my porch. There was a camera crew from Germany in my driveway. There were so many people I could hardly get my car out to go to work.”
Onlookers of the Smurl House on Chast St. in West Pittston. Photo courtesy of Bill Waston and reprinted in Pittston Progress
In an article from the Citizen’s Voice from June 2017, daughter Carin Smurl, now a social worker and sometimes paranormal investigator, recalls that people knocked on their windows and doors and even threw bricks at their house. She said that people terrorized the family. Some reporters also claimed that the family was just looking to make a quick buck with their story, but Carin denies that. She told the Pittston Progress, “We never made money from the book or movie. Who would want to go through all that media and public bashing? To the naysayers, I hope it doesn’t take something as extreme as what we went through to make them believers. We wouldn’t wish our experiences on anyone.”
Their story, however, was dismissed not only by local newspaper columnists, but also by Paul Kurtz, then chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal at the State University of New York Buffalo. Kurtz attributed the strange odors to scientific explanations and said the overall story was flawed because it was based solely on accounts of the Smurls and Warrens, not any independent observers.
Though the Smurls had their skeptics, they had true believers in Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed specifically believed that the Smurls were haunted. He told The Times-Leader in 1986 that “the ghost, devil- or whatever you call it- is in that home.” He also claimed to have audiotapes of rapping, knocked, and dark shadows that he attributed to a demonic entity, and he said during the first night at the home, he felt the temperature drop and saw a dark mass form in front of him after he used the name of Jesus Christ, a crucifix, holy water, and holy oil.
Ed and Lorraine Warren
The Smurl story gained more and more attention, to the point that Scranton native/actor/writer Jason Miller, best known as Father Karras in The Exorcist, visited the home. Miller didn’t necessarily believe that the source of the family’s turmoil was a demonic presence, but he did believe something was going on in their home. He told The Scranton Times that the Smurls feared the “infestation” would eventually get to the family.
Jason Miller: Photo courtesy of Bill Watson/reprinted in Pittston Progress
In May of 1991, the made-for-tv movie The Haunted debuted. The movie, based on the book The Haunted: One Family’s nightmare, co-written by Robert Curran, a then reporter for The Scrantonian Tribune, the Smurls, and the Warrens, is a trip to watch all of these years later. Directed by Robert Mandel, it stars Sally Kirkland as Janet and Jeffrey DeMunn as Jack. As a local, I can’t help but laugh every time Kirkland pronounces Wilkes-Barre, tripping over the double r. Many of the effects don’t hold up, especially the moment when Jack is attacked by a succubus, who seemingly alternates between a woman with rotting teeth and a large dude in drag. That said, there are still plenty of scares in the film, especially early on when Janet is the basement and hears her name repeated. (Janet!) The shadows and blobs that float in and out of the room are generally eerie, especially when the entities follow the family on a camping trip, while neighbors spot flashing lights and hear strange noises in the empty house.
When re-watching the film, though, I was reminded of a familiar trope in haunted house movies, one that comes up in The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring. The Smurls economic anxiety is front and center in the first half of the film. Early on, Janet mentions that after a short period of bliss following the move, the family suffered one setback after another, from the boiler breaking to a pipe leaking. As the haunting persists and she pleads with Jack to leave, he tells her over and over again that everything they have is tied up into the house. They can’t just leave. These scenes centered around strained finances reminded me so much of the Lutz family in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, especially when the patriarch, George (James Brolin), complains about the house “nickel and diming him.” As soon as the Smurls move into the house, most of the family spends their time painting the duplex, while Jack crawls under a sink to fix a leaky pipe. The house has as many flaws as the Amityville house with its goo-spewing toilets and failed windows. Like other films in the haunted house sub-genre, The Haunted and Amityville can be looked at as statements about the American dream and the immense anxiety that comes with home ownership.
As the film progresses, Janet becomes more and more frazzled. She smokes. Her hair is disheveled, and at one point, when Jack comes home late, she questions if he’s been with another woman. Clearly, the house strains their relationship, and she, being a stay-at-home mom, has to confront the conflict the majority of the time. She even says at one point that the entities attack when he’s not there because she’s more vulnerable.
Sally Kirkland playing Janet
In June 2017, Jack Smurl passed away. His family’s history and story earned him rather lengthy obits in the local papers. Looking back on the period of their lives that earned them international attention, Carin Smurl said of her father in The Citizen’s Voice, “We had such a hard time and nobody to turn to. He was happy I was a voice out there for people who need help.”
Jack Smurl from the Times-Tribune archives
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the Smurl story, that a town as small as West Pittston could have a ghost story that gained the world’s attention for a few years. Who knows what really occurred to that family. My fiancé claims that she knew a family who moved into the house years later and nothing eerie ever occurred. Still, I like knowing that everyone from Jason Miller to Ed and Lorraine Warren descended upon that sleepy neighborhood to investigate. The Smurl house was our spook house, a local phenomenon, and thanks to Shudder acquiring the rights to The Haunted, its story can live on.
My fiancé and I have stayed home for the last several Friday nights. It’s not because we desperately need to save money or because we don’t still enjoy a drink at a bar. We stay home every Friday because we tune into the horror streaming service Shudder to watch “The Last Drive-in with Joe Bob Briggs.” Every week, Briggs, formerly of TNT’s “Monster Vision,” hosts a double feature laced with commentary that’s a blend of film criticism, humorous rants on everything from Tesla to beauty pageants, and most importantly, a serious love and knowledge of ALL aspects of the genre, from J-horror to American staples like Hellraiser and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The return of Briggs and the success of “The Last Drive-In” (the first marathon crashed Shudder’s servers back in July), proves that it’s time for the horror host to return and resurrect a sense of community that’s desperately needed in the age of social media and streaming devices.
Watching Joe Bob every Friday involves more than simply pulling up Shudder. A host of fans, which Briggs long ago dubbed the drive-in mutant family, live tweets during the broadcast. Briggs’ assistant, Diana “Darcy the Mail Girl” Prince, interacts with fans and retweets their observations, pictures, and art work. She deserves major props for fostering a community and helping with the show’s success. She, too, has an intense love and knowledge of the genre. Because of “The Last Drive-in,” films like Castle Freak and C.H.U.D. trended on Twitter, at least for one night. The show’s popularity also stems from Briggs’ astute commentary, which occurs during breaks, while he’s seated in a lawn chair next to a trailer, holding a Lone Star beer (he is a native Texan, after all). Even if he doesn’t love every film, such as C.H.U.D., he still respects the art form enough to research the history and production, thus providing countless interesting tidbits, like how a screenplay came together or why the director made certain choices. With the rise of social media and sites like Rotten Tomatoes, it’s become common for us to simply offer a thumbs up or thumbs down to a film or various other art forms, without much nuanced opinion. Briggs is the contrast. His commentary contains layers. He’s able to remind the audience why there’s merit in even a long-forgotten B slasher movie like Madman, which he screened during the fourth episode. Even in the cheesiest film, he can find value and remind audiences that work still went into the screenplay, the set design, and the general production.
As Briggs has said during countless print and online interviews, streaming a film can be a lonely, isolating experience. Films are meant to be a communal experience, especially horror films. We enter a darkened theater to confront our fears and anxieties and probably feel a little better once the lights turn on and the monster has been defeated. Horror, as Stephen King has said, is a safety valve. But streaming services have removed that communal experience. Even video stores, where fans once roamed rows of VHS tapes or asked a clerk for a recommendation, are extinct. Shudder’s decision to revive the horror host back in July, when Briggs hosted 13 films in honor of Friday the 13th, was a bold move, and it was supposed to be a one-off, truly “The Last Drive-in.” However, it was too successful. Briggs then returned to host Thanksgiving and Christmas marathons, until returning permanently at the end of March for the Friday night double feature. What Shudder and “The Last Drive-in” have done is unique in the sense that they’ve taken the latest medium, the streaming service, but injected a much-needed communal aspect. It’s why Briggs’ show really should be seen live. Fans have harnessed social media to interact with each other during the broadcast. This venture has become so popular and successful that now, every Friday at 8 pm, Shudder features a one-hour countdown until the next episode of “The Last Drive-in,” which is just a live shot of the set, including the adorable Iguana Ernie, who typically just chills in his tank every week. On Twitter, fans post screen shots of their flat screens and whatever beer and food they ordered, as they hunker down for the double feature, which often lasts until 2 am or so, due to the commentary.
Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl
The age of the drive-in and watching movies on a big screen under a starry summer sky may be a nostalgic image of a bygone American era, but Briggs has proved that in this moment, the age of social media and broken politics, we desperately need that sense of community. The success of “The Last Drive-in” may cause other horror hosts who were once household names, like Elvira, to return to prime-time slots, either on Shudder or other streaming services.
Meanwhile, at least in northeastern, Pennsylvania, there is a chance to frequent local drive-ins, including the Mahoning Drive-in in Lehighton, which shows several horror features throughout the summer and fall months. They even host a Universal Monsters weekend and a slasher marathon in August dubbed Camp Blood, which includes games and costume contents. The Circle Drive-in in Dickson City screens newer films from spring to autumn every weekend, and last year, a Cult Movie Club formed, which focuses solely on horror. Screenings are once a month, starting in April and running through Halloween. Find them on Facebook for more info. Additionally, the NEPA Horror Film Festival is now held at the Circle Drive-in in October. The film fest showcases short independent films from filmmakers around the world. Who knows, one of them could be the next George A. Romero or Tobe Hooper. This year, there will be guests, including Felissa Rose (Angela in Sleepaway Camp), who appeared at the fest a few years ago and has been a frequent guest on Briggs’ show.
Streaming services aren’t going away, but “The Last Drive-in” has used that medium to create a community and bring horror fans together. The show’s wild success makes a definitive argument for other horror hosts to return.
Everyone already knows the story of Lizzie Borden, a 19th Century woman from a well-to-do New England family who was accused and then acquitted of murdering her father and step-mother. Borden has become a myth in pop culture, her story recounted through music, novels, and even the TV show “Supernatural.” The horror streaming service Shudder recently debuted a fresh take on the story, obtaining exclusive rights to the film Lizzie, which manages to humanize Borden in the face of her puritanical father.
Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan
Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Because Borden was acquitted and the murders are still technically unsolved, the film is able to offer a unique take on a rehashed story. At the core of the narrative is a relationship between Borden and Sullivan, who can’t deny their attraction for each other. Sevigny and Stewart’s chemistry is the film’s real strength, especially when they first come in contact with each other, either hiding in each other’s bedrooms, away from the gaze of the tyrannical patriarch Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), or brushing against each other in the upstairs hallway. The sexual tension builds as the film progresses, until they finally kiss, but not without consequences, as Andrew catches them and later calls his daughter an abomination.
The film’s main flaw is that the relationship between Borden and Sullivan is not given sufficient room to breathe and develop, despite the nearly two-hour run time. Frankly, there aren’t enough scenes of them together. Near the end of the film, when Sullivan visits Borden in jail she asks, “What am I to you?” In the last 20 minutes, a narrative is spun regarding Borden’s recruitment of Sullivan to help with the murders and topple a sexually abusive patriarch, but with more character development, it indeed would have been clearer what Sullivan is to Borden. Is their relationship real and meaningful? Is it just lust? Was Borden merely using Sullivan to commit murder and obtain independence? It’s never fully clear, but when Sevigny and Stewart are on screen together, committing what Andrew labels “an abomination,” their energy is palpable.
Watch the trailer for Lizzie:
Lizzie does succeed in humanizing Borden, especially when she confronts her abusive father or her womanizing uncle John Morse (Denise O’Hare), who is determined to steal her inheritance. This Lizzie is bold and outspoken, willing to challenge the repressive gender norms of the time, including those that exist within her family. The film also touches upon mental illness and madness, namely how Lizzie is an outsider within her family because of spells (epilepsy, maybe?), but again, these scenes and this story arc aren’t given enough time to really develop. The concept of mental illness and women depicted as mad is a strong trope in both literature and film and by not exploring it in Lizzie, it very much feels like a missed opportunity.
While much of the film is a slow-moving drama, heavy on dialogue and scenes that primarily contain only two characters in a frame, the last 20 minutes are a blood-fueled trip that will please horror fans. By these final moments, after witnessing Andrew’s resentment towards Lizzie and his sexual abuse towards Sullivan, viewers won’t gripe when he finally gets his.
Lizzie is an intriguing take on a well-known story, which generally makes the viewer feel empathy towards Borden, whose lesbian tryst was an affront to her high-society family and social norms of the late 19th Century. The real highlight of the film is Stewart and Sevigny’s scenes together. If only there were more of them.