Archive for September, 2015

A Halloween Preview

Posted in Updates with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Ah, October. The breeze whispers coolly through the dying leaves, carrying the scent of fire and rain and pumpkin guts, prophesying the darker days to come. An omen we wait for all year round. And now it is upon us.

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This, as you all can tell, is a horror blog. And October is the month of horror. Thus, to honor my favorite holiday (and to avoid the wrath of Samhain), I will be writing daily posts recommending films, books, and various other delights that encapsulate for me the atmosphere of this time.

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(a word of advice – this month, watch the foliage)

So, FOLLOW THIS BLOG! for a curation of Halloween delicacies and rituals to make this month the spookiest of the year. I have spent far too much personal time culminating the things that evoke the spirit(s) of October. Now, I will share my discoveries with you lovely horror fans.

Light your candles. Close your curtains. Pray that nothing is watching through the window. And prepare to indulge in the glory that is All Hallow’s Eve.

With love from your ever-creeping ghoul,

Smucky.

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Films That Haunt Me: SOCIETY

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Ah, body horror. We don’t see enough of it anymore. What horror fan doesn’t appreciate a good old slime-fest, with a dash of social commentary thrown into the goop? It’s a genre that often gets overlooked as being purely gross – but the best body horror films have some insightful and penetrating things to say about our civilization. No film does this more overtly, or with more fluids, than SOCIETY.

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Directed by Stuart Gordon collaborator Brian Yuzna, this ick-fest starts off innocently enough – a high school boy believes that his yuppie suburban town is hiding something sinister beneath its pastels. People are disappearing, the snobby rich kids are acting up, and is that woman’s torso twisting around like that?? These unusual occurrences culminate in a horrific realization about his family and friends – a society of people that aren’t people at all.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling the ending. It’s a sin to give away such a great surprise. (And surprisingly hard to find photos to put in this post that don’t involve what happens.) To avoid ruining the entirety of it, I’ll just say this – Yunza creates a brilliant, satirical view of the homogenous wealthy, who are quite literally all the same person. The makeup effects are bizarre and ingenious. What makes them so striking, beyond their nastiness, is the way the visuals comment on the ‘theme’ of the cruel bourgeois. They are not wholly human, and thus, they look down on everyone who is human. And use them for certain purposes. I’ll leave it up to you viewers to find that out for yourselves.

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Since we get to see this society from the point of view of an outsider, we are able to share in his surprise and horror – and Yuzna also permits himself, through this, to be as surreal and weird as he pleases. The world that our hero stumbles upon goes so far beyond anything we could imagine that it is impossible not to find hilarious, but in a way that makes it hard to tell whether or not we should really be laughing. Yuzna’s sense of humor is similar to Peter Jackson’s in “Braindead” – using gore as slapstick and an opportunity for puns. But beneath this, there is that thread of disturbing social commentary, which is so spot on that it makes the unreal sequences hard to completely write off.

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The level of satire makes it difficult to take seriously at times, especially in the earlier scenes, when it’s hard to decide if the film is a mystery-thriller or a John Hughes rip-off. But for those who can look past the off-kilter opening, the payoff is gob-smackingly terrific. I argue that, for the ending alone, it can take its place alongside the best horror efforts of David Cronenberg, and even some of Lynch’s more grotesque work.

This film represents, for me, the great artistic value of a genre that we don’t often see anymore. Body horror had its heyday in the 80’s, but once the slasher craze really took off, it fell by the wayside. There are a few modest efforts available today, but what happened to the surplus of nasty and sub-political films that used to saturate the market? In honor of “Society” and its kin, here’s to hoping that body horror makes a comeback. For now, we can relish in this one’s bizarre humor and quantity of slime-covered satire. You’ll be singing the Eton Boating song for days to come.

Forbidden Tomes: DAWN by OCTAVIA BUTLER

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Science fiction and horror often find a cozy home together, typically using a futuristic setting to comment on some nebulous terror of the present-day reader. One of the most realistic and harrowing examples of this pairing comes from the criminally underrated Octavia Butler, in the form of the first entry in her Xenogenesis series, DAWN.

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This corporeal nightmare begins with a woman trapped in a room without doors – she is one of the sole survivors of a nuclear war on Earth, and should be dead. But her situation becomes even more horrific when her captors reveal themselves: a tentacle-covered race of aliens who have saved the last remaining humans from death, but at a horrible price. Though the race is benevolent, Lilith knows that she has no hope of escaping. Trapped in a world vastly more advanced than her own, Lilith tries to retain her humanity – but the true monsters, aliens or humans, are hard to define.

Like all the best science fiction, Butler creates an intricate and astonishingly detailed world in which her moral dramas play out. The aliens are repulsive, yet so seemingly kind, and their abilities are at once exciting and terrifying. Butler gives them ultimate power over the humans, but they never use it to inflict pain. This is where the fascinating dilemma comes into play – questioning what it means to be human, and if that is something worth fighting for.

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At the center of this inner battle is Lilith, whose passion and intelligence carry the narrative terrifically. She is a strongly ambivalent character, stubborn but not stupid, given the task of cultivating the human survivors and helping them adapt to their new environment. The disturbing meat of the story really comes from these survivors and their responses to Lilith’s alien claims. Butler is extremely adept at dissecting human relationships and examining why they go wrong.

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And on top of all that recognizable drama are the aliens, who are all the more unsettling for their calm demeanors. There are several subtle moments in the book when Lilith (and the reader) realizes that their control over the humans is complete. They have become the lesser species, no better than animals to be bred. Butler, however, forces the reader to consider: is this such a bad price to pay for survival? Or is this fate worse than death? Especially because it isn’t black and white, with explosive species-on-species battles, this quandary becomes deeply haunting. It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table rule: don’t let it explode, or you’ll release the tension with shock, and lose your audience. Butler does not give the reader that release, instead tightening the noose slowly and imperceptibly until the damage is irreversible.

Because of this, the book isn’t exactly terrifying – it sits in the realm of disturbing allegory, transcending scariness. It’s the concept and the way it is explored that lends the book its horror. This one will stay with you, creeping up to ask its questions again and again, never satisfied with a comforting answer.

Forbidden Tomes: HANGSAMAN by SHIRLEY JACKSON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2015 by smuckyproductions

As we enter into the full swing of the school year, we encounter once again the dramas and anxieties of classes and fellow students. There are legions of comedies and dramedies that deal with these themes. But, I find, very few horror stories; and as the ever-brilliant Shirley Jackson proves, that genre may be the best suited to conveying them truthfully. She demonstrates this to stunning effect in her second novel, HANGSAMAN.

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Everyone knows Shirley Jackson for her slow-building nightmare “The Lottery” and her maddeningly terrifying ghost tale “The Haunting of Hill House.” But her tragically short literary career was full of quieter gems as well. In her sophomore effort, she enters the mind of a socially awkward (or worse?) young woman who has just started college. She desperately wants to create her own identity and grow into herself… but that’s hard to do when everyone around you is backstabbing each other, and you start going insane.

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Part coming-of-age drama, part social satire, and a whole lot of psychological nightmare, this novel is a powerhouse of emotion. Anyone who is familiar with “The Lottery” knows that Jackson is the master of slow-build, suffocating tension. She is brilliant at keeping the reader in the dark, spinning cryptic thoughts within her characters that hint at something dreadful and placing them in situations that are eerily confusing. This novel demonstrated that in full force. Natalie, the main character, navigates a world in which people – including herself – are dangling by a thread over the abyss of insanity. There is the constant threat of danger, but never an outburst of violence. We, along with everyone else, are holding our breath, waiting for it to come.

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Natalie’s world is populated with deliciously off-kilter characters – a handsome teacher who marries his student, and the wife, who drinks away her anxieties; a gossipy classmate who spies on girls whom she wants to slander; a mysterious, unnamed friend who leads Natalie into a nebulous and dangerous existence; et cetera. Many of these characters, uncanny as they are, also give humor to the book. Jackson is a genius when it comes to gallows humor. You laugh, but only to prevent yourself from screaming.

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But what makes me adore this book, and Jackson’s others as well, goes beyond the grotesque characters and growing tension – it’s the penetrating, ruthless, but accurate insight into the human condition. These characters, in their madness, reveal a disturbingly recognizable side of the reader: a side that is riddled with irrational terrors and hatred of themselves and others. We’d rather not look at this side of ourselves, but Jackson allows us to do so without destroying ourselves completely. I always discover something about my thoughts when I read her books. The xenophobia and paranoia that infect her characters are things that I have felt, and to recognize them in something else makes it easier to rid myself of them.

Shirley Jackson is a glorious writer, and “Hangsaman” demonstrates the best of her abilities in comedy, horror, and human insight. It is a book to consume when you’re alone, shut away from the world. And the monsters lurking inside the pages look so terribly much like you.

Dark Musings: MUMBLEGORE

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2015 by smuckyproductions

I’ve already expressed a deep love for indie horror, and praised what seems like a Renaissance in the area. It’s difficult to fully encompass the indie scene, though, without acknowledging a rather controversial subgenre that actually makes up quite a bit of the selections. This is not a category that Netflix would acknowledge, but I think it encapsulates the general vibe of this type of film. We will call it MUMBLEGORE.

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What the hell is that? you say. I laughed pretty hard when I saw that phrase first, too. It references a movement in indie film – ‘Mumblecore’ – used to describe a movie that is basically just people talking. Well-known examples include “Frances Ha,” “Drinking Buddies” and any film involving the Duplass brothers. These films tend to be the subject of some ridicule because the characters are usually over-hip and a bit (or a LOT) pretentious. Regardless of personal preference, this is a substantial area in low-budget filmmaking, and the pool of collaborators (the Duplass bros, Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham) have a considerable amount of talent.

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And how does this relate to horror? Well, I think it’s easy to acknowledge that horror and comedy are the two easiest genres to produce successfully on a low budget. Thus, these filmmakers switch between both, and take their mumbly-hip style with them, to give birth to Mumblegore. The earliest example is probably the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead,” released in 2008. I saw this film a few years after it came out, and honestly, it ended up frightening me quite a bit.

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Following in its footsteps, the scene welcomed the likes of Ti West and Adam Wyngard, who have both slipped solid entries into the genre canon – “The House of the Devil” and “You’re Next,” respectively. Other efforts include “Silver Bullets,” “The Innkeepers,” “The Sacrament” and, arguably, this year’s “Creep” (starring Mark Duplass as a horrifically creepy motherfucker).

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Films like these have sparked some pretty intense hatred, because of their slow pace and dialogue-heavy openings (though they tend to conclude in a glorious amount of viscera). I agree with some of the criticism, particularly that the characters are a bit too sharp and snazzily dressed to pass as fully realized people. But horror has always been imperfect, especially the characters, who are usually not even fleshed out beyond their name and the way they die. What matters is the story, the style, and the honesty of the filmmaking.

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These three reasons, among others, are why I celebrate the filmmakers involved in the mumblecore/gore movement. They have built a pool of talent that works together constantly and successfully outside of the studio system. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion on this content, it’s encouraging and exciting to see that such a community can actually exist and thrive in today’s industry. The films that come out of this movement have created their own space in the genre and expound a vision that, while perhaps not everyone’s preference, is undeniably unique. I’m sure some will disagree, but I see this as a beacon of hope for aspiring filmmakers like myself. There is still a space for creators who want to be their own brand.

So, I personally dub the prolific and energetic producers of mumblegore films a group of talent to watch closely. There are quite a few horror projects in development now, including a comic-based television series called “Outcast” (pilot directed by Adam Wingard of “You’re Next”) and a classic-sounding stalk-and-slash flick “The Woods.” Other surprise releases can always be discovered in the Park City at Midnight section at Sundance.

Well, horror fans, what’s your opinion on this rising genre? And what’s your favorite mumblegore film if you have one? Comment below and let the grave know.

Films That Haunt Me: ONIBABA

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Today’s film is one that every horror fan has seen referenced, even if they did not realize it. We all recognize the nightmare-inducing demon face from “The Exorcist” – but what inspired William Friedkin to design that horrific makeup? For this, and for many other reasons, we can find endless macabre genius in ONIBABA.

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Translating more or less as “Demon Woman,” this Japanese classic follows in the footsteps of its contemporaries – weaving a fable-like morality tale set during the wars of feudal Japan. This one finds a destitute mother and daughter duo who survive by robbing half-dead samurai and hiding their bodies in a pit near their house. When the daughter falls in love with a stranger who lives nearby, the mother must find a way to keep her precious asset. She manages to steal a horrific demon mask off a dying soldier and uses it to scare her daughter away from her lover… but she doesn’t know that the mask is cursed.

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Like many of the films that haunt me, this one requires patience and attention – but these are rewarded monstrously as the film crescendos to its climax. The almost lulling atmosphere of the first half, composed of swaying reeds and the tense fraying of a mother-daughter relationship, sets a dreamy tone that is shattered by the horror of what comes. This transition from quiet and peaceful to violent and nightmarish is highly effective. The film takes on a liminal aspect, as if the characters are in limbo, waiting in the reeds; then hell is unleashed in full force.

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William Friedkin sites this as one of the scariest movies he’s ever seen, and used the disturbing mask as inspiration for his own Pazuzu’s face. That goes to show the power of the imagery in the latter half. Watching the mask float out of the night, rising above the daughter gone to meet her lover, is unreasonably shocking. Like a nightmare, the film constructs itself so that the viewer only recalls specific moments – and the appearance of the mask, then learning what it truly means, is one of the things that will never leave my mind. It’s pure, poetic horror.

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In addition to this, there is a magnificent human story that supports the imagery – a tale of survival and jealousy. The mother-daughter tension is palpable and subtle, justifying the nasty things that happen later on. As all the best horror films are, “Onibaba” begins as a drama and moves into terror as the story escalates. Because of this, it will test some viewers’ patience; but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a thunderbolt of an ending. It really plays out like a fable, but the final moral is dirtied by the humanness of the characters. That is what lends it its brilliance.

As a family drama, a survival thriller, or a pure demonic horror, this film succeeds on many levels, and cements itself as iconic. Watch it, and enter this liminal world of murder and death. Perhaps, after the credits roll, “Onibaba” will follow you back.

Forbidden Tomes: HORROR STORIES of TRUMAN CAPOTE

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Though he’s known for more whimsical classics like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Grass Harp,” or the harrowing true crime account “In Cold Blood,” there is more to Truman Capote than one might at first recognize. He is undoubtedly masterful with sentimental, nostalgic tales and beautiful insights into memory – but lesser discussed are his forays into terror and the Gothic. Today I want to shed some light on the neglected Horror Stories of Truman Capote.

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From a literary perspective, his Collected Stories are a must-read, and all the more exciting for horror fans due to the surprise moments of terror hidden within. In these moments, Capote equals Shirley Jackson in his ability to conjure tiny moments of suspense with the utmost subtlety, and always favoring an ambiguous end. They speak to the darkness of his own visions, something that would come into full effect with “In Cold Blood” (which, in its own way, is utterly horrifying).

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My personal favorites are “Miriam” and “Master Misery.” The former finds an amiable widow befriending a strange child at the movie theater. She soon regrets it as the child begins to haunt her home, ringing at late hours and demanding to be given a home. It’s a fabulous entry in the ‘evil child’ subgenre, and playing on something innate in most people – who can refuse a child, no matter what it begins to ask of you?

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“Master Misery” is less direct in its horror and its story, but its depiction of psychological breakdown is very effective. It follows a woman who, strapped for cash, begins to sell her dreams to a mysterious but enticingly wealthy old man. But what happens when she starts to run out of dreams? This tale is surreal and ambiguous, weaving a bizarre New York City in which a person’s life is slowly devoured. In spite of its ambiguity, I found it deeply disturbing, mostly because it resonated a truth I hadn’t yet named.

The collection features less horrific stories that still contain hints of the Gothic – “A Tree of Night,” in which a young woman is hounded into insanity by grotesque drunkards on an overnight train; and “Children on their Birthdays,” the retrospective tale of a girl who holds uncanny sway over the children in her town. All of these darker offerings speak to a literary tradition of subtle horror that I often think has been forgotten by modern writers. Capote roots his terror in the unraveling of an already fragile mind, pushed over the edge by an unnatural experience that is usually quite small. The aura of hopelessness that hovers over his endings makes them all the more devastating.

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While certainly not a genre writer, Truman Capote shows how capable he is at creating a dreadful and psychological atmosphere. The above stories (and the others, in spite of their lack of fear) are so often forgotten in the horror canon. I recommend them to anyone who likes their dread to creep up slowly, quietly, and internally, so that it is impossible to run away.