(No Such Thing As) Too Much Horror Business

Who you callin’ “Spook,” Peckerwood?

Dracula the Un-Dead (Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, 2009)

I don’t mind audacity as long as the payoff’s good. And this book is audacious: co-written by Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew, it seeks to reclaim the world of Dracula from Hollywood and popular culture, which apparently have muddled the story since 1897, in a sequel that, broadly speaking, pits the Harkers, Van Helsing, and Arthur Holmwood/Lord Godalming against Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who’s like an ignoble lesbian Dracula on steroids.


As with so many allegedly good ideas, this book is one big “Yes, OK, but…” The story basics are intriguing, but there are too many problems, including one huge problem that can’t be gotten around: the writing is terrible. I’m talking bush-league, Dick-and-Jane-sentence terrible. And once you take a familiar story with familiar characters in a familiar genre and add “terrible writing” to the mix, you get a book that feels for all the world like it’s been phoned in, as though the authors figured they could just ride Mina Harker’s coattails for 400 pages instead of really honing this idea into something special (and, also, instead of proofreading). Another huge problem is that the narrative keeps jumping far too quickly from one character’s crisis-ridden scene to another’s, mimicking that soap-opera trick of zooming the camera in on someone’s over-emoting face as the ominous music swells and then CUT to more over-emotive nonsense. Over and over and over. And then there’s the book’s inevitability, because you know from very early on EXACTLY how events are going to unfold and how the story’s going to end, though I’m certain this inevitability was not itself inevitable – the tale, in other words, could’ve been handled far more artfully and telegraphed far less. There are some good elements, like scenes of high-octane gore, an intriguing Jack the Ripper subplot, and, of course, the lesbian Dracula I mention above: despite the absolute crap internal and external dialogue she’s given, Bathory is a straight-up badass who probably deserves not only her own film adaptation but also her own film adaptation in which she’s played by Noomi Rapace (the original and superior Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Seriously, she could be awesome on screen, so long as Stoker and Holt aren’t allowed near the screenplay (but Holt’s a screenwriter, so fat chance there).

Honestly, don’t waste your time with this book. Read something else.

Horns (Joe Hill, 2010)

Ig Perrish wakes up with horns growing out of his head, and he soon discovers that these horns (a) make people open up to him in shocking ways, (b) cause him physical pain, (c) allow him to snort puffs of smoke, and, later, (d) summon snakes. The backstory for all this, told through chapter-length flashbacks, is the as-yet unsolved death of his beloved Merrin and the community’s suspicion that Ig killed her. One of the neat things about this book is that, although it’s predictable, Hill does such a good job developing these characters into complex, realistic entities that the story winds up being not so much predictable as natural, simply going where required by the characters’ machinations. There are several impressively realistic dialogue-heavy scenes, which is rare in my experience; usually, heavy dialogue tends to shout “EXPOSITION! I’M COMMUNICATING IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS THROUGH TALKING!” Not here, thankfully. There’s also a weird villain who easily could have been the story’s weak point but isn’t, and that’s rare too. His name is Lee Tourneau, and I’m positive Hill knew what he was doing when he gave this guy a name so aurally close to Mary Kay Letourneau, the creepy and felonious Samoan cradle-robber. The first time I encountered Lee Tourneau in the story, I literally groaned, and for that I say: well-played, Joe Hill. You should positively read this book, so I won’t spoil any juicy bits (and there are plenty) by giving them away here, but I must mention two nifty echoes:

1. Whether an intentional overlap or not, Merrin is the surname of Max von Sydow’s character in The Exorcist, who is, of course, an exorcist. Since Ig grows horns and involuntarily draws out the baser instincts of those he encounters, does Merrin somehow function as an exorcist for him? Kind of, actually. Not in a direct way, but kind of. Enough that I want to read it again from that perspective.

2. In Restoration and early Georgian English literature, literal and figurative horns connote someone who’s been cuckolded (which is also where we get the modern sexual notion of horny). This too has some layered and slightly off-center application to Ig.

Highly, highly recommended.

Insidious (2011)

Horror for me is a tricky genre. Like anything else I read or watch, it needs to be handled specifically and realistically, but specifics and realism sometimes tamp down what might be scary, since they tend to deflate the fantastic and phantasmagoric. It needs to play on ingrained, traditional, even limbic fears, so it needs a degree of familiarity, but few things will ruin a horror piece like overly predictable paint-by-numbers hooey. And it needs to be scary – it needs to create those magic moments where your fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in even though you’re sitting quietly on your couch or in a theater seat. (These are all broad-stroke opinions, of course. Feel free to disagree with abandon.)

Based on these ideas, then, I’ve rarely encountered a film like Insidious that provokes such contradictory reactions from me. It’s overflowing with boilerplate horror totems:
  • Happy family in a new place
  • Less-than-stable wife left alone too much with her young kids
  • Unexplained occurrence involving one kid
  • Bizarre and scary events possibly caused by said occurrence
  • Recruitment of quirky paranormal investigators (complete with one warm, wizened female seer and two comic-relief technicians)
  • Revelation of past and heretofore unknown macabre occurrences
  • Epic showdown of Dark Forces versus once-happy family + paranormal investigators
  • A partially happy ending
How many stories have I just described? Poltergeist is almost a perfect fit, and I’m sure there are dozens of others. Additionally, the mother and father are too good-looking (oh, but she’s Rose Byrne – mmmmmmmmmm…), the kids are too cute by half, a few important plot points are too thinly developed, and the soundtrack and sound effects rely too much on sudden-jolt shock value.

And yet I’ve watched this movie several times, always with delight, and am even now anticipating watching it again. Why? Quite simply, it’s because the scary parts are really motherfucking scary. Considered in light of my beefs in the previous paragraph, the scary parts are basically set pieces – it’s not that they’re unrelated to the overarching story, it’s that they have a power lacking in the non-scary scenes. Lovely as she is, I don’t really care that Rose Byrne’s character is lonely. I don’t really care that her husband (Patrick Wilson) seems overly distant and unhelpful. I don’t really care (forgive me for saying this) that their son is in a coma-like state for much of the movie. I don’t really care that moving to another new house (they rightly think the first new one is haunted) does nothing to stop the weird shit from happening. But I sure do care when Byrne’s character sees a hulking figure walk past her second story window directly into her bedroom and then literally screech toward her as she scrambles off the bed. I sure do care when she’s playing LPs while unpacking at the second new house, hears the needle scratch off the record, hears a different song playing, and then sees an ultra-creepy little boy/man running around, laughing. (And whoever picked Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” for this different song is a goddamn genius.) I sure do care during several other moments that I won’t spoil for you here – suffice to say they're scary even when I already know they’re coming.

Maybe this care/don’t care business isn’t so strange. I mean, I don’t care too much about Laurie Strode’s, Danny Torrance’s, or Jim the courier’s woes, but Halloween, The Shining, and 28 Days Later… remain terrifying years after they first appeared. I suppose what all these films share with Insidious is that their money shots are exceptionally effective irrespective of plot/character concerns. (I mean, to examine the other side of the coin for a sec, how many horror films have I watched with zero money shots that worked on me? [Answer: 1, 117. I counted ‘em just the other day!]) Consider another, even lesser-known example: The Messengers, a 2007 release starring Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, and that piece of timber Kristen Stewart. Could you put together a less impressive cast? Maybe if you tossed in Keanu Reeves and Cybil Shepherd? And I swear to you the storyline hews to the list of totems I describe a few paragraphs above. Dumb as the floor. But the money shots? Hoo-boy. I paused on this movie while scanning channels a few years ago and was overwhelmed by its vapidity. Then a scene happened where Kristen Stewart is holding her baby brother in the middle of the night in their new house, investigating a strange noise, and we – and the baby – see a ghoul slowly approaching from behind Stewart. The scene drags on sparsely and mercilessly for I-don’t-know-how-long-but-it-feels-like-hours, and it is terrifying.

While they’re occurring to me, consider three more examples of weak horror movies with a handful of strong scenes:

1. Signs: I hate the lugubrious sentimentality in M. Night Shyamalan-a-ding-dong’s films so much I don’t even know what to say anymore, and this one is among the worst, with an asthmatic Culkin and Johnny Cash and a grieving anti-Semitic and his courageous return to his ecumenical collar at the end. But even all this silliness doesn’t stop a few alien-encounter scenes from being mightily effective (not the one of news footage on TV – that’s just comic).

2. Devil: Yeah, another Shyamalan schmaltzfest, which is a real shame because this one (five people trapped on an elevator with, apparently, the devil) could have been completely brilliant. The big reveal near the end, though, is a total masterstroke. I’m getting chills right now just thinking about it. Yikes!

3. The Others: This movie’s not bad – its creepy atmosphere is dense and enjoyably oppressive – but Nicole Kidman’s mourning for her dead husband and hyper-vigilance over her kids’ photosensitivity become irritating more or less immediately. There’s also a (wait for it) “surprise ending.” But the film has several genuinely scary scenes, including one near the middle with a veiled figure and a marionette whose fright value makes watching the entire thing (to that point) worthwhile.

Shit, add to this the entire Paranormal Activity franchise. I went to see the first one in the theater, lured by the very effective trailers, and, despite some perennial complaints – How convenient that the film centers on two TOTAL cutie pies! When do these people go to work? PLEASE STOP FILMING YOU DICK! THERE’S A MALEVOLENT PARANORMAL PRESENCE IN YOUR MIDST! &etc. – it scared the shit out of me. I literally didn’t sleep well that night. Then the second PA film comes out, and although I’m averse to sequels, the trailers once again lured me in and goddammit if I didn’t find the second one more effective than the first. (Let me pause and bluntly summarize for emphasis: there is some really fucked-up shit in PA2.) So then PA3 comes out, and I say aloud “There’s no way that’s going to be any good,” and I don’t see it in the theater, but I do watch it on Netflix, and………yeah, it’s not as good as the first two. But it gets a few money shots so very, very right – the sheet-ghost in the kitchen? UN. HOLY. HELL. – that I’ve watched it more than once, delighted every time.

Anyway, I was talking about Insidious. It's definitely worth your time if you haven’t seen it (on Netflix Instant, et al.), if only because I’d like to know if you find any of it effective. Among its tried and true formulae, it even adds a few legitimate and scary surprises. Unlike most films we discuss here, it’s rated PG-13, which is probably about right considering the amount of profanity, gore, and nudity it doesn’t contain, though I can’t fathom my 13-year-old watching it until he’s older (my 18-year-old passed on watching after I described it to her – she knows her limits).

That's all I got for today. Come check some of us out on Twitter if you like laughing.


  1. Excellent reviews! I had my trepedations about that Dracula sequel, so I've avoided it. Sounds like I saved myself some cash. :) I always worry when distant relatives of the original writers start doing sequels. Around a decade or so ago a distant relative of Edgar Allan Poe put out a couple of novels that were sequels to Poe stories... I bought 'em but haven't worked up to reading 'em yet.

    Then again, there are relatives of great writers who don't disappoint, like Joe Hill (Stephen King's son). :) I haven't read Horns yet - I've got a copy but I'm saving it up 'til I read enough bad books in a row that I need something that'll be a sure bet for being good - but Heart-Shaped Box was great, and he and his dad worked on a short story that kicked ass - "Throttle." It's kinda like Sons of Anarchy meets horror.

    I dug Insidious, too... a few things klunked but it had enough good going for it that it worked well. Seen _The Innkeepers_ yet? You should definitely check that one out. It's a slow burner... but when it kicks into gear, holy shit!

  2. I had no idea that Joe Hill was Stephen King's son. That's wild. Heart-Shaped Box is definitely on my list.

    I saw The Innkeepers and really liked it. Also saw House of the Devil (same director) and didn't care for it much, though parts were creepy.