31 Horror Films 31 Days 2017: A Frank Postmortem

 

2017 was my sixth year of participating in Daniel Kraus’s #31HorrorFilms31Days challenge on Twitter. I complete the challenge on behalf of the public library I work as a way of showcasing the depth of both our physical and digital collections as well as the variety of films available via free interlibrary loans.

Given I’m representing the library when I tweet about these films I often cannot be as forthright about my opinion as I’d often like. Consider this the horror film version of Behind the Music on some of the highlights from my journey.

*****SPOILERS AHEAD*****

Please note: the numbers in front of each film indicate the order I watched them in out of 35 (!) total films. I did not count all of them for the library’s count. Let’s begin:

2. Fear Inc. – I have a lot of concerns about Fear. Inc’s business model. But this movie does have its charms even if it underbakes some subplots and overdoes the back and forth of how much danger the characters are truly in.

4. Ouija: Origin of Evil – I love the strong emotional core to this film as well as the director’s methods of making it feel like a movie filmed in the 70s. From the IMDb page:

Director Flanagan says he wanted to create the thriller as if it were shot in 1971. Some techniques included antique lenses, scene fades, and camera zooms instead of steadicams. Other simulated techniques: dust on the negative, subtle warping of the audio track, reel jumps and split-diopter (where both the foreground and background are in focus).

Between this, Hush, and Oculus I have become quite enamored with Mike Flanagan’s style and attention to creating well-drawn female characters and legitimate reasons for characters in a horror film to stay in the situation they are in (versus running away ASAP).

But despite all this glowing commentary, there is a part of this film that made me laugh so hard I had to backtrack at least three times to confirm what I had seen. But this does happen during the climax of the film so beware if you want to watch it spoiler free.

Don’t let the jump scare that immediately proceeds this moment distract you from the fact that somehow, despite being hung off what one would presume is a FINITE amount of rope, that the dead body of the main character’s love interest somehow flies down at her, grabs her, and throws her up on the second floor for no discernible reason. And is never animated again. Don’t believe me? You tell me if you see something different happen in this clip (begin at 1:46).

This moment is immediately followed at 2:03 by a moment I like to call “When you realize your sister has been going through your stuff & you’re also possessed af”

5. It Comes at Night, 6. The Monster, 21. The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and 33. A Dark Song – I feel the need to lump these movies together as examples of a trend I noticed in a lot of the newer movies I watched this year. They are for the most part very leisurely paced, disjointed, and atmospheric nearly to a fault.

But credit where credit is due: they are well-made and have cinematic merits that many mainstream/wide-released horror films often lack. How can you discern if you are about to watch a horror film that fits that description? The key giveaway is the the different between the Critic and Audience percentages on IMDb:

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Those tomato tests don’t lie. I’m torn on this wave of films; I enjoy them for injecting something fresh and well-made into the genre. Scott Meslow’s How We Ended Up in the Golden Age of Horror Movies notes how horror films are often the fast-food of the movie industry: pumped out, predictable, and while temporarily sating they are full of empty calories. Films like these are artful and don’t follow the usual formulas of cheap jump scares coupled with cookie cutter plots. But that doesn’t mean they are without fault. To me these are the tiny artisanal portions of food you eat at a fancy restaurant. The food is tasty but you know you’ll need a burger before the night was over if you didn’t want to go to bed hungry. They key lies in striking a balance between atmosphere and pace. I think the quickest way to succeed with that balance is really utilizing the soundtrack and sound effects to pull the viewer in and create a sense of momentum and unease. Of course I am a sucker for movies like Session 9 and Last Shift which focus on disturbing sounds. I also think horror is most successful when a story is complete enough to feel satisfactory while leaving enough loose ends to stick with you and stay in your thoughts long past the credits.

ANYWAY

In terms of what I actually thought – I would subjectively rank these movies as follows:

The Blackcoat’s Daughter – This is the infamous movie from the 35 where my girlfriend said “this seems atmospheric” which is a promising phrase from her. She then proceeded to read the Wiki page of the film and conclude “oh. That’s a dumb ending.” But I enjoyed it – I think my appreciation rests on the stellar performances (holy crap Kiernan Shipka!), my love of Emma Roberts*, and the movie having just enough truly scary scenes in the final act to make it feel like horror.

I love Emma Roberts in the way you love any archtype “bad girl/bad boy”, and I love that she often plays characters that are a lil to a lotta crazy.

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The Monster – Add this to the list including Final Girls as a horror film that made me cry. I typically avoid anything dealing with dysfunctional families because unlike otherworldly horror I have enough dysfunction in reality. But I was moved by the performances of the very young mother and her daughter. I think this movie, while heavy handed in its addiction = the monster metaphor, really captures what it is like to both hate and love an addict in your life. And the never quite quelled desire to see them do better. I felt so much for that little girl. The flashbacks in this film are really the true horror story and the monster almost seems like a refreshing problem because there is a simple solution (get away from it or kill it). Much like Malin Åkerman in Final Girls and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out,

Zoe Kazan’s fear in the final scenes of the film is so human and so palpable. She isn’t being noble in sacrificing herself to save her child; she’s obviously terrified and in those vulnerable moments we see a sympathetic & terribly flawed person who is doing right for one of the first (and last) times in their life.

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A Dark Song – Loved the concept but disliked the execution. This movie felt undercooked (I’m clearly hungry and doubling down on this food metaphor). I understand why it fit the atmosphere and themes to be so monotonous but I felt like well-shot monotony doesn’t necessarily make for a great viewer experience. I also felt like too much was shown vs. implied in the final act and it really undid what the first two acts were doing. Also that guardian angel? Come on now.

There is a scene that to me showed a glimpse of the promise this movie had. The basic plot is a woman pairs together with a male occultist to conduct a dangerous, months long ritual that promises the participants an ability to get one of their wishes granted. The occultist leading the protagonist through the ritual insists they have to have sex as part of the ritual. She agrees given her desperation to succeed in getting her wish. But we find out the occultist is lying and instead manipulates her into undressing and proceeds to masturbate in front of her. The sexual violation scene was well done in terms of depicting how rape culture functions and how predators see their own behavior. The occultist doesn’t think he did anything wrong because in his mind (after all) he didn’t touch her. 2017 has been a groundbreaking year for confronting sexual harassment and intimidation, and this film shows an example of the way power in situations can be used to create and perpetuate sexual assault.

It Comes at Night – This is one where the more I think about it the more I dislike it. Fantastic performances but again a bit unrealized and functions more like a thriller than a horror film. This is especially disappointing as the initial trailer I saw in the theater before Get Out had my hopes up very high for this one.

9. Phantasm II & 10. Phantasm III – Bottom line: I saw a trailer for the fifth Phantasm that seemed so ridiculous I felt like I just had to watch the whole series. But these films feel like you are watching the same cheesy yet delightful movie over and over again.

Your feelings about this clip will probably determine if you should watch any Phantasm film past the first. This is from Phantasm III: Lord of the Deadwhich basically becomes a very violent version of Home Alone for approximately five minutes. My girlfriend during this scene: “what a fantastically improbable targeting system but okay.”

Phantasm’s gender politics could be a post in an of itself, but suffice to say part Phantasm III’s charm is the character Rocky (depicted below), who finally provides a nice counterbalance to the other depictions of women as either evil or damsels in distress in all the other films.

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This is about two seconds before Reggie starts trying to hook up with her.

Also it was shockingly rewarding to watch Rocky repeatedly rebuff Reggie’s sexual advances. I still expected given the nature of the movie and Reggie being to protagonist they would hook up but no! At the end of the film Rocky basically says “well that was…interesting [fighting demons with you], but this just isn’t my thing. I’m out.” Reggie asks for a hug and she briefly and chastely hugs him for a moment before literally saying “okay enough of that! Bye!” and abruptly leaves. Good job Rocky! Flee this film series before you are killed for shock value or become an evil servant of the Tall Man!

Phantasm II and III were like some nice greasy burgers after the aforementioned artistic horror films.

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11. Cult of Chucky – Funny and gory with just enough jump scares. But the main thing that impressed me about this film was how inclusive it is. I didn’t realize till looking into these creative decisions that the creator of the Child’s Play series is a gay man which explains the nuance in this film. In it we have:

  • A protagonist named Nica who uses a wheelchair. As she notes when a character inquires, this isn’t due to her initial encounter with Chucky – she’s always used one. She’s also given a sex scene very early on in the film which I really appreciate for showing her as an everyday woman who has sexual urges and acts on them even though she is clearly depicted as the natural final girl of the film. Interestingly enough she gets out of her wheelchair and begins walking when she is possessed by Chucky’s spirit and thus evil.
  • A gay male nurse named Carlos who is also one of the POC characters in the film. The reveal that he is gay is clearly and deliberately put into an early conversation, and his sexuality is never a punchline or joke during the film.
  • An Asian American woman who is one of the fellow inmates in the mental asylum. Her death scene is just as graphic and outlandish as most in this series but as I noted to my girlfriend “In any other slasher movie…that would have been a white woman getting decapitated by a glass ceiling shattering above her…but in Cult of Chucky it’s an Asian American woman.” Maybe not the most groundbreaking progress for diversity in horror films but worth noting in combination with some of the other creative choices.

This also had a lot of fun elements. I love the use of Andy Barclay’s character and the way it ties together many elements of the series. Also the WTF Thelma & Louise meets Bound ending. The main character Nica is played by Brad Dourif’s (voice of Chucky) daughter in real life. It is a great addition to the series and it clearly shows a franchise that has been helmed by the same person with a clear vision for the story’s progression.

12. Happy Death Day – This movie has a decent amount going for it but still felt a tad underwhelming. It’s Groundhog Day conceit is intriguing (and it directly mentions the other film in the last scene), but it suffers from some cringe worthy moments and a PG-13 rating which keeps a lot of the gore and profanity off-screen. A mild cringe that comes to mind is the Asian sorority sister who is shown repeatedly in the relived day loop listening to whatever song the producer found when they Googled “stereotypical J-Pop music” and she is depicted like a Harajuka girl by way of Gwen Stefani’s understanding of Harajuka girls on her first solo album. Like most bad stereotypical representation is it the end of the world? Absolutely not. Is it part of a larger problem in terms of representation in film? Yes.

This film does tip the scale a bit forward when it comes to feminism in horror. Our protagonist Tree (yes that’s what she goes by), goes from being an unlikable mean girl to a character we are rooting for by the end with some streaks of antihero rarely afforded to female characters. I also think while she is a jerk when we first meet her, and some of her specific choices in partners reinforce that she’s a self-centered person, the fact that she is a sexually promiscuous college student isn’t specifically counted against her. (Even if the movie does strongly indicate she is going to enter a monogamous relationship with the adorkable guy next door because heteronormativity).Jessica Rothe’s performance is enjoyable with her ability to hit the various moments of humor and terror effectively.

Perhaps most disconcerting element of the film? Somehow they got the rights to play 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” in the trailer as the song Tree repeatedly wakes up to yet in the movie they use a generic Chipmunks sounding birthday ringtone. This might be the most egregious false advertising in a trailer in my life.

13. Jason Goes to Hell:The Final Friday (Not to be confused with Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter) – This is actually the only Friday the 13th film I had never seen so it seemed appropriate to knock it out on Friday the 13th. I enjoyed an opportunity to see the citizens of Crystal Lake and their take on Jason Voorhees and their 5 minutes of fame upon his supposed death. It was also neat to see the Voorhees house which is inexplicably a crumbling mansion? I’ll take it.

The deaths were still spot on in this one even if it seems many fans weren’t fond of the possession/body jumping storyline. Interestingly I noticed an uptick in the amount of male near nudity on screen and discovered this wasn’t my imagination: the director had a 1:1 rule when it came to male:female nudity in the film because he thought the previous films seemed sexist in the amount of women vs. men showed in the buff. But even if his equal objectification rule seems like an earnest attempt at being less sexist there’s also this tidbit from production:

Adam Marcus wanted Keegan to do that shower scene completely nude…Keegan says she told them from the get-go she wouldn’t do nudity while Marcus maintains she was never upfront with him about that. Keegan counters that Marcus knew, but kept telling everyone he’d be able to convince her to change her mind. She never did, and during the scene she wore a flesh-colored bathing suit bottom and Madonna-like cone bra just with dixie cups instead of cones. The water was so hot, though, that she was literally crying from pain. Keegan complained about the whole thing to her agent, who then argued with on everyone in the production, especially Marcus. As a result, Keegan and Marcus briefly became enemies. It got so bad she walked off the set, even though they were mere days away from wrapping. So, Cunningham had to take the movie away from Marcus, and come in to direct the final couple of days. That’s the only way they could get Keegan back. (IMDb)

This is also the most homoerotic of the Friday the 13th films. It’s no A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge but Jason’s soul transfers bodies via mouth to mouth slug transmission and there’s also a scene where one possessed man decides to shave the new Voorhees host before the slug transfer. So yeah. Homoerotic.

17. Inside – I was promised a C-section with a pair of shears and this film delivered…so hurray? I have to say I was slightly disappointed with this film given how hyped up it was from various lists. But I will say it has some interesting elements, very effective gore, a sinister sense of dark humor, and an extremely creepy moment towards the very beginning that gives me chills just to think about. That moment is so different from the in your face violence of the rest of the film but c’est la vie.

18. Chain Letter – Ho boy. It is unfathomable to realize this film was made only 5 years ago.  Where do I start? How about this screenshot of the actual IMDb page for the director of the film:

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These are the first of nine total paragraphs The more I read this, the more I become torn trying to decide if he wrote it himself (my original hypothesis) or its satire and he doesn’t realize his IMDb page says this.

Chain Letter is a movie where it is clear very early on someone said “I want to make a film just like Saw! How do I do that?” and just went with that. It is also clearly made by someone very concerned about technology being irrevocably evil.

The basic premise is a group of high school seniors becomes ensnared in a deadly killer’s game. The killer sends an electronic chain letter but unlike the chain letters you undoubtedly encountered when America Online was still a thing, this killer actually delivers on killing you if you don’t pass the letter along. In one of the best scenes, the surviving members of a dwindling group of friends meet up to stress out and subsequently yell at each other about the serial killer stalking them one by one.

Character 1: “But HOW is the killer tracking us?”

Character 2: “Because of THAT!” *points to his phone*

*Character 1 waves around his cell phone incredulously* “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? HOW CAN SOMEONE TRACK US WITH OUR PHONES?”

To say this film couldn’t be made in 2017 is an understatement.

There are also multiple scenes like this:

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You need to look like you are researching the killer but in a sexy way…just pout in front of your computer with some glasses on! 

Also there’s definitely a scene showcasing a girl’s breast which might seem obvious for a horror film…except the girl we are supposed to be ogling is definitely in high school :-

But also there’s a moment where a teen girl locks herself in a room to get away from the killer…and the killer (who is explicitly shown not to be supernatural) literally just bursts through a wall like the Kool Aid Man

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This is not an exaggeration of how the scene goes down.

19. The Burning – This was a serviceable 80s slasher which featured one of the more memorable kill scenes I’ve ever seen in part just because of how patient the killer is! After stranding the campers during their annual camp in the woods in tents trip, the killer waits for HOURS in a canoe in the off chance the campers might come by. This is the result 

20. Southbound – I could give or take some of the stories in this anthology but I admire the commitment to the theme and setting. “The Accident” and “The Way In” were amazing. The former has this great Silent Hill feel and the latter is a home invasion story influenced by The Strangers (aka one of the only movies that truly scares me). This was one of the first ones that my girlfriend was actually intrigued by.

22. The Ring – I love The Ring. I could talk about it for hours. I have decided it’s my personal mission to screen it at any library I work at.

23. Body Snatchers – The 90s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers really fell through the cracks and that’s a shame. It definitely has a 90s vibe where it could be a PG movie about kids realizing their parents are acting strange…but then suddenly there are naked pod people and you realize that stuff just got real serious real fast.

This scene deserves a place in the top 100 horror film moments of all time, and is easily one of my favorite lines from a movie ever.

The twists and turns of who was a pod person and who wasn’t were well done. This movie might have some cheese and a shoehorned romance subplot but it’s a great addition to the annals of pod people movies.

24. Don’t Breathe – This movie was an extremely pleasant surprise. The exploration of modern social issues is reminiscent of Get Out. The Detroit setting works perfectly for setting up the characters and their desperation. It also makes it plausible that the characters could get stuck in a house in a city neighborhood without any hope neighbors might overhear a violent scuffle (the rest of the block is abandoned).

Perhaps the movie can best be summed up like this: you will never root so hard for a group of common thieves to rob and kill a blind veteran. The man they attempt to rob has an incredibly physical presence, and Rocky* is an instantly iconic final girl. This is one that has more merits and twists than its trailer could reveal.

*Can we make the call that all characters in horror films named Rocky are awesome between Don’t Breathe and Phantasm III? Am I forgetting a Rocky that sucks?

26. The Bye Bye Man – I wasn’t going to watch this after seeing the dismal reviews across the board but decided to give it a chance when I realized it had a female director because feminism? Anyway I should have skipped this one – it’s a sloppy movie that doesn’t know what it wants from its plot or characters. There’s a weird triangle between the protagonist, his girlfriend, and his best friend/roommate. There is a scene where the librarian nearly saves the day by locating an elusive unpublished article on the bye bye man, but then the poor librarian gets roped into their poorly plotted supernatural nonsense. Verdict: not very nice to librarians.

27. Zombeavers – This did not get counted for the library not because the library didn’t have access to it, but rather because I couldn’t figure out how to tweet about it as the library. There’s a part pretty early on when one of three female friends who go on a camping trip together decides she wants to be half naked all the time. Every scene between the female characters is clearly written by a man who has no idea how women typically talk to one another. They also inexplicably have southern accents even though it takes place in Indiana.This movie is so intentionally trashy that I couldn’t even find clips on Youtube to clarify some of the things I wanted to talk about…most search results were trailers or illegal uploads of the entire film no one cares to take down.

I will say Zombeavers has a surprising final girl twist, and there is a scene where an old couple in a nearby cabin hears a ruckus at the teens’ cabin and the old man asserts that they are probably “just scissoring to Lady Gaga” and that he won’t go disturb them while they do so just to check up on them. I wish this film was a lot gayer based on that line but it’s not.

28. Get Out – I already talked about this in a previous entry but watching the film a second time reaffirmed how fantastically well-constructed and acted it is.

30. Resolution – This film almost got lumped together in the group including It Comes At Night but honestly I really disliked this one. The premise is so unique and intriguing (friend takes extreme measures to help other friend get off drugs by literally holding that friend hostage in an abandoned cabin to sober him up), but the execution is bad and anticlimactic. The film never quite seems to figure out what it wants to be (which given its title and meta storytelling aspects I’m sure the filmmakers and fans of it it would argue is the point), but it also fails over and over to deliver scares or even chills. There was an extra feature which was better than the actual film. It is also clearly a movie written by and for bros with some stale humor about how gross it is to sleep with overweight girls and the classic “it’s funny because we look gay but we are not” jokes.

31. Raw – Luckily after the disappoint of Resolution I was quickly able to get the bad taste out of my mouth with the pleasantly well done Raw. I was initially a little nervous about watching what appeared from reviews to be another artsy French film about horror mixed with sexuality but was relieved to see the movie was created and directed by a woman. Parts of it that would would have been unintentionally cringeworthy were treated with a keen insight into the coming of age process for a young woman, while the horrific moments meant to induce discomfort were delivered effectively.

Even more so than its frank and honest commentary on female sexuality, to me it offers an interesting exploration of siblinghood in all its dysfunctional yet codependent glory. An interesting twist at the tail end makes sense of the threads of the film and pulls it together in a satisfying manner. Realizing and confronting the monster within oneself isn’t new territory, but this film offers a creative version of that struggle and desire to balance carnal, raw cravings with will power and integrity. Or at the very least not eating innocent people due to your insatiable cravings for human flesh.

One last note: the protagonist’s love interest is a gay man and the dynamic between them and how it explores issues of gray areas in sexuality, consent, female desire, and victim blaming is interesting. In one of the final scenes Justine wakes up next to her love interest and realizes he has bled out and died from being eaten. Before she realizes her sister is to blame, she cries and chastises her dead roommate for not stopping her, putting the onus on her victim for not stopping her in an interesting take on the typical victim blaming negative.

32. The Devil’s Carnival – Not as fun as one would expect a horror film musical to be.

34. The Void – This movie seems to start out during another horror film’s ending with two people attempting to flee an isolated rural house as others chase them with guns. From there it introduces a charismatic but ill-prepared for an actual emergency small town sheriff who gets ensnared in a mysterious cult’s bizarre attempts to bring Lovecraftian creatures they seem to worship into our reality. This movie does a lot right, combining special effects with nostalgia-satisfying nods to The Thing and Halloween II. It falls a little apart by the end (no pun intended for some of the untimely demises witnessed), but it is still a fun fix for those of us still craving 80s scifi/horror mashups.

35. The Grudge – Having surpassed my goals I decided to rewatch the American remake of The Grudge. No witty commentary here – just major props to whoever added this as a quote to the movie’s IMDB page:

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