Horror movies 101: rules of survival

How to Survive a Horror Movie ★★★★
Seth Grahame-Smith
Quirk Books, 2007

how to surviveHorror movies and I? We go way back. I’ve been a voracious consumer since I was eight and my enthusiasm for the genre hasn’t diminished with … ahem … maturity and wisdom. So yeah, it’s been a lifelong love affair, one I don’t hide, or feel I need to apologize for. Because even amidst the dreck, there exists some awesome cinematic gems, and amidst the classics there are film moments of hair-raising, heart-stopping, enviable genius.

The naysayers who decry: “how can you watch that garbage” are rude asshats, unimaginative douchebags or big fat chickens. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Rationally I know horror movies aren’t for everyone, but there’s that rabid part of my brain that thinks if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

In writing this little manifesto on how to survive a horror movie, Seth Grahame-Smith (the guy who gave us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) proves that he understands horror and humor are a marriage made in heaven – the two go together like Butch and Sundance, Sam and Dean and that other celestial match – Sam and Bruce. Horror indulges in all forms of comedy – satire, slapstick, black, blue, Freudian, farce, irony – you name it, it’s been done; in some cases to humbling effect, either deliberately with great focus, or by happy, moronic accident.

Bruce Campbell (Ash) battles with his possessed hand.

Bruce Campbell (Ash) battles with his possessed hand.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than these cinema classics: An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead I and II, The Return of the Living Dead, Creepshow, and Shaun of the Dead.

Frank (James Karen) realizing the movie lied.

Frank (James Karen) realizing the movie lied.

All of the above are prime examples of why I’d rather be watching horror movies rather than reading about them. But every now and then a book of this sort breaks through my defenses, giving me that “come hither” look I just can’t resist. This book has giggles, a few gut busters, and a whole lot of in-jokes delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. There are some sections that fall flat being over-written and a little dumb, but there are also shining moments of pure cleverness. Any die-hard horror fan who reads this little book is going to think “I could have written this and probably done a better job”; maybe, but you didn’t, and neither did I so we’re going to shut our pie holes and give props where they’re due.

More than anything, this little book is pure goddamn fun. Plain and simple. However, it is not a classic – for that you have to read If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor and Danse Macabre. These definitive texts will teach you everything you need to know about the industry, the genre, the people who make their living by it, and the people who love it. Seth Grahame-Smith wants to make us laugh, but it also comes across how much he loves celluloid horror and because of that I know he is one of us and therefore to be trusted.

There are just too many delightful nuggets to quote from here and rather than trying to capture them all I’m just going to say go read the book. But I can’t resist throwing out a few of my favorites:

The Seven Deadly Horror Movie Sins:

      3rd Deadly Sin: Independence – “Screw you guys I’m going home”. Actually you’re going about a third of the way home.

     5th Deadly Sin: Curiosity – “Do you think it’s dead?” No. Go ahead and poke it with a stick.

How to Defeat a Killer Doll: Kick the Crap Out of It. Why are you running away from something that could be imprisoned with Legos?

How to Kill a Vampire: Interview It.

What to Do If Your Corn Has Children In It (I still can’t say this out loud without giggling my ass off)

The Amityville Horror (1979) – Bad things happen in house. Family buys house. Bad things happen to family.

Carrie (1976) – If you haven’t seen this masterpiece yet, pelt yourself with tampons and go to your prayer closet.

The Hitcher (1986) – How many times do I have to tell you: Never pick up Rutger Hauer!

Seven (1995) – I went to see this film by myself on a cold, rainy Boston day. I haven’t smiled since.

The Sixth Sense (1999) – Hi, my name’s M. Night Shyamalan. Trust me…you’ll learn how to pronounce it.

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Evil Dead (2013) – epic fail

Evil Dead (2013) ★
Director: Fede Alvarez
FilmDistrict and Ghost House Pictures
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez

evil-dead-remake-movie-poster-2013So I finally got my ass to a theater to see the much anticipated remake of Sam Raimi’s horror classic Evil Dead. I have to be honest — I did not want this remake. For the most part, I’m leery of remakes no matter the purity of intent or the talent and ambition involved. Certain films especially are such products of their time and the people behind them that any attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time is bound to fail. You’re either left with a painful pastiche or a hot mess. All parties involved are so determined to either “hold true to the original” or break away to become “its own movie” that the effort seems agonized and confused one way or the other, defeated before the first scene is even shot from trying too hard or not hard enough. Rarely does something emerge that’s new and exciting with its own unique vision of a story.

My problem with remakes is that if you can’t do it better,  why bother doing it at all? Yet people continue to try.

I’ve been a diehard fan of the Evil Dead trilogy for years, and while I did not think a remake of this sort could succeed, I was willing to give it a chance. It did have the blessing of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell after all and maybe a young new director could bring a freshly terrifying spin to that cabin in the woods and the inadvertent awakening of sleeping demons.

Then again, maybe not.

e3Without even comparing it to its source material (there is no comparison), this remake is an epic failure. Yes, there are some gooshy, icky splatter effects to make you squirm and wince and gag and a few loud bangs and demons jumping out of dark spaces to make you startle — BUT — that’s all there is and I’m sorry, anyone who tries to argue any different is wasting your time.

I was shocked by how little plot set up there is (the ludicrous intervention / detox getaway weekend is so throwaway and unconvincing). What’s worse, there is hardly any tension or buildup before the gore starts to fly. Hello!! Where’s the foreplay, people? This isn’t a porno that needs a sex scene in the first 15 minutes. Yeah it’s a horror movie, but one that claims to be more evil-dead-2013-critique-L-S0Cu8cthan a B grade slasher flick, boasting in fact to be the most terrifying film I will ever experience, so where’s the goddamn character development? I need a hero to root for, I need someone to really like and relate to who’s going to act as my gateway into this nightmare landscape. All of the characters are so underdeveloped and just not that likable that when the possessions start (too soon, way too soon) I felt neither frightened for them nor invested in the outcome. I don’t scare if I don’t care, it’s as simple as that.

Horror 101 — anticipation is everything, an addictive emotional, visceral response. Create suspense please, let my imagination do a little bit of work first, give me some room to savor the dread. The approach here is heavy-handed and obnoxious. I did not feel like an active participant but rather someone who is being dragged along for the ride.

evil-dead-2013I was also disappointed by the visuals, not just the demons, but how dark this movie is shot. Throw on some lights! Dark isn’t always the scarier choice. This is the only time I will mention Raimi’s original in which he shoots a lot of his most violent scenes cast in bright light (I’m thinking of Cheryl and the pencil stabbing here). It’s in our psychological makeup to feel safer when there’s light, so that when something horrific happens it’s even more frightening because we’re not expecting it. This remake is too dark as to be almost monochromatic, and with no contrast that very quickly translates into visual boredom.

Horror and comedy may seem like strange bedfellows, but any horror junkie knows that the juxtaposition of scary with funny is a magic combo that is one of the genre’s greatest strengths. When the tension is coiled just tight enough, a slap dash of comedic relief is always welcome. That is sorely lacking in this movie. There are no comedic moments, no absurd occurrences to get you giggling right before you scream, and god knows this bleak piece of work needed that more than anything else. If it’s not going to serve any other purpose than to make your characters more likable, locating those natural moments to exploit for a laugh is paramount.

evil-dead-jane-levyAnd as for those demons? Meh. The possessed looked more like a cross between a vengeful Japanese ghost and a Romero zombie. Nothing about the way they move or speak impressed me as new or particularly frightening.

Was I grossed out? Yeah, you bet, but that’s not the same as being terrified, and wasn’t that supposed to be the whole point?

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