October Horror Goodies Part 1

Hello there! I'm working on another spooky short story that I hope to have ready by October 31. Until then, here's a list of horror goodies I've been posting to Facebook on a daily basis and am now collecting here because I can. Beware of spoilers, etc. I plan to post another set of 15 on October 30 followed by my story the next day. Enjoy!

October Horror Goodie 1/31: Last Days – Adam Nevill (2012)

Adam Nevill has been described as “Britain’s answer to Stephen King,” which is as good a description as any to convey the power of his work. Actually, no – here’s a better one: this book and another I’ll discuss in a future post are the only ones I’ve ever finished and then immediately started over – i.e., I literally finished reading the final page, flipped back to the first page, and began again because I had to re-immerse myself in that world.

In Last Days, the world centers on documentary filmmaker Kyle Freeman, who gets hired to make a film about a notorious cult called the Temple of the Last Days and, in the process, learns far more than he should about this cult, its practices, and its awful, awful summonings. Every passage is loaded with either rumbling dread or outright terror (how Nevill manages this effect without overdoing it is beyond me), but one scene in particular rises to the level of a masterclass. The always-awesome Zwolf wrote a stellar review of Last Days upon whose excellence I cannot improve, especially his description of the scene in question: “What happens in pages 329 through 333 might make you afraid of the dark for a while, because it’s one of the scariest written horror scenes since Danny Torrence went into room 217.” There is no hyperbole in this statement; the Danny-in-room-217 scene from The Shining is the scariest chapter in all of horror fiction, and the comparable one from Last Days is either a close second or tied for first. It is absolutely terrifying. If you’re a horror fan and you haven’t read Nevill, you’re missing out on some of the best and most frightening work of all time.

October Horror Goodie 2/31: The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) (free with Amazon Prime)

This little-known film is taut and full of dread and, like The VVitch (you know I’ll get to this one eventually), approaches its subject matter at face value without hinting much at rational explanations. Kiernan Shipka (of Mad Men fame) is a student stranded with another student (Lucy Boynton) and some sort of evil force at their boarding school over winter break. One of the best things about this film is that it hits the sweet spot of explication, explaining just enough to keep you intrigued without leaving too much out (looking at you, The Invitation) or overdoing it (hi there, 99.4% of all horror movies). Case-in-point: the story involves semi-confusing but ultimately very effective flashbacks and flash-forwards that enhance the story and its power instead of functioning as cheap, lazy gimmicks. There’s also a quick moment near the end whose emotion and unpredictability pierced my heart; I was so surprised that I rewound and watched this scene a few times to make sure I had it right. Damn good stuff.

A final interesting point: before I watched this film, I read a review that floated a theory – Kiernan Shipka’s character is actually Don Draper’s daughter (the role she played) from Mad Men who’s been shipped off to a boarding school under a pseudonym, and if you watch the movie, you’ll see it hints at some paternal/familial baggage that aligns rather well with the Mad Men narrative. This theory is so fascinating to me that I never want to know definitively whether it’s true or not – I just want to hold onto it as a useful prism through which I can view this story.

October Horror Goodie 3/31: True Detective season 1 (2014)

Though it’s far more crime procedural than horror, the first season of True Detective (which is easily my favorite single season of TV ever) incorporates lots of horror elements and is just incredibly, atmospherically creepy in general. Within ten minutes of the first episode’s start, we’re treated to a crime scene that’s equal parts Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and pagan ritualism, all of which figure heavily in a labyrinthine plot centered on seemingly related killings investigated by Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) over a 17-year period. Additionally, the themes and the dialogue itself allude to (and sometimes flat-out quote) horror-genre touchstones like Robert Chambers’ short story collection The King in Yellow and the works of Thomas Ligotti. I desperately want to tell you about the show’s two most horror-tastic sequences, but I’m afraid I’ll spoil something; suffice to say, though, that these two extended set pieces will probably stay with you for a long, long time.

And then there’s McConaughey’s acting. Hoo-boy. If you’ve seen the Lincoln car commercials he was in over the past few years (the ones that SNL masterfully spoofed), then you already kinda know the shtick he created for the Rust Cohle character. For me, it teeters on the brink of absurdity throughout all eight episodes, always threatening to become ludicrous but never quite doing so, which is a neat acting trick: how did he devise such a drawling, fatalistic philosopher-poet-special-forces-level badass without turning him into a caricature? I’ve no doubt he IS a caricature for many people, but he’s fried gold to me. And he’s endlessly quotable:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law…We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody…I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

MARTY: There’s all kinds of ghettos in the world.
RUST: It’s all one ghetto, man. Giant gutter in outer space.

I can smell the psychosphere.

LUCY: You’re kinda strange, like you might be dangerous.
RUST: Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.

You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never more than a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will, and you could just let go. To finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life – you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain – it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person…And like a lot of dreams…there’s a monster at the end of it.

…if the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales, then it’s not good for anybody.

Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel. It’s catharsis. He absorbs their dread with his narrative. Because of this, he’s effective at proportion to the amount of certainty he can project. Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain. Dulls critical thinking.

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

Yeah, people incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.

In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill…and you are reborn but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives? Well, who knows? When you can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and the secret fate of all life. You’re trapped…like a nightmare you keep waking up into.

There is no such thing as forgiveness. People just have short memories.

Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.

MARTY: He ain’t gonna talk with you.
RUST: I got a car battery and two jumper cables argue different.

I don’t like this place…Nothing grows in the right direction.

What happened in my head is not something that gets better.

Someone once told me, “Time is a flat circle.”

October Horror Goodie 4/31: Absentia (2011) (free with Amazon Prime)

Another little-known but supremely effective film. Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years, and she’s about to declare him legally dead in absentia when he shows back up much, much worse for wear. He’s so visibly terrified he can barely speak, and as Tricia, her sister Callie, and a pair of detectives try to tease out what happened, he disappears again. HOW he disappears is a textbook example of (what I’ll call) the Jaws effect: the mechanical shark didn’t cooperate during production, so Spielberg had to show it less than originally intended, which is where the movie gets so much of its power. Same effect here: what happens to Daniel is suggested rather than shown outright, and that suggestion (involving the mysterious history of a nearby tunnel) is very frightening indeed, partially because it’s so bizarre and partially because it’s treated so matter-of-factly. A fantastic, economical film, right up through the brilliant final moment.

October Horror Goodie 5/31: Hannibal (1999)

While visiting a Virginia Tech writing program in 2000, I realized I hadn’t brought a book along, so I picked up Hannibal from a Kroger checkout line and quickly learned how real the clich├ęs “page turner” and “couldn’t put it down” can be. (I think I read it twice during the trip.)

The sequel to Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal takes place seven years after the earlier book’s events and follows Clarice Starling’s troubled post-Buffalo Bill FBI career deep into mortal danger. After receiving a letter from Lecter, she sets off to track him down, in the process plunging into the nightmare that is Mason Verger, the only Lecter victim who survived (a term I use loosely, given the dreadful state he’s now in). Verger’s bedridden psychopathy gives Lecter’s a run for its money, and while I won’t spoil anything, I feel at this point I must warn you: in 35-plus years of reading horror fiction, Hannibal is easily the most disturbing book I’ve ever encountered. I mean, it is DEPRAVED. There are scenes in this book I’ve never been able to get out of my head, badly though I may have wanted to. To say it’s not for the fainthearted is like saying water is a little bit wet.

Which brings up a question: is this a good book, or is it just sensationalist in the extreme? I don’t know – maybe the latter? – but if you’re looking for something to give you the creeps this month, you can likely do no better than Hannibal.

(p.s. The 2001 film version isn’t bad, but it pales in nearly every comparable way with the book.)

October Horror Goodie 6/31: The VVitch soundtrack (2015)

I’ve talked at length here before about my love for scary music. I have not one but two Halloween playlists on my iPhone that I listen to year-round and on a constant repeat during October. One of the undisputed highlights of both lists is the soundtrack to The VVitch, Robert Eggers’s 2015 directorial debut that’s one of the best horror movies of all time. A fair amount of the movie’s power comes from this soundtrack, and I’ll tell you how I know this…

Within an hour of leaving the cinema after seeing The VVitch for the first time, I downloaded the soundtrack and listened to it while I went for a walk. Even on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, with cars and people around, I was scared out of my wits: skin crawling, hairs raising, head looking around for a devil-goat named Black Phillip cantering toward me on his hind legs. It was awesome!

Here’s a challenge: I dare you to go walking alone in the woods at night while listening to this entire soundtrack in your earbuds. I doubt you can do it. I tried, and I failed.

October Horror Goodie ‪7/31: Penpal (2012)

For this entry, I find that I again cannot improve on Zwolf's review of DathanAuerbach’s terrific novel Penpal, so I’ll direct you to that while also quoting two critical passages here:

“He [the nameless narrator] and his mother move away from his old neighborhood and he and his friend Josh sneak back to his old abandoned house, thinking his missing cat may have gone back there; the result of that escapade is one of the most incredibly creepy things I've read in a long life of reading horror – it's chilling and will definitely bug you.”

[As with the novel Last Days, I read this review before I read Penpal and forced myself not to jump ahead to the scene he describes here. And as with the scene from Last Days, there’s no hyperbole about this one just above. It is horrifying.]

“Next, the narrator goes on a movie date with a girl that turns into a tragedy of horrible creepiness, which will also get under your skin and lodge there, freezing.”

[Same interjection here: this movie-date scene is CREEPY.]

So, yes, Penpal is superb. It also has a fantastic cover.

October Horror Goodie 8/31: Mama (2011)

Lucas and Annabel (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain) become guardians for Lucas’s recently orphaned nieces, who were kidnapped by their homicidal-suicidal father (a twin, also played by Coster-Waldau) and nearly killed at a remote forest cabin before he himself is killed by......something. The girls have been missing for five years when they’re found in the same cabin, feral and filthy and uncommunicative. With the help of a psychiatrist, Lucas and Annabel begin the process of helping the girls heal and reacclimatize but soon discover that something sinister has returned with the girls from the woods.

Mama is one of those horror movies that I like quite a lot despite its formula-driven frustrations. First, Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister) and Chastain are two of the most physically beautiful people on the planet, so much so that their tritely bohemian existence (he’s an artist; she’s a bassist in a “rock band”) simply doesn’t ring true for their perfectly chiseled faces. Second, the totem that horror plot elements must spring from fractured families is more worn out than old carpet, and this film trucks in it incessantly. Third, another particularly galling totem, the Female Without Maternal Instincts Who Will Be Shown the Error of Her Ways, is in full effect here as goth-lite-rocker Annabel must inevitably begin to feel motherly stirrings, personality and free will and general human independence be damned. Fourth, the titular entity gets shown too much mainly because it’s a Guillermo Del Toro project, so of course the visual grotesquerie has to come front and center eventually, which naturally means the scary stuff loses its potency because we get inured to said scary stuff (to be fair, the malevolent entity’s look is terrifying). Lastly, see how I scare-quoted “rock band” above? Why do movies so infrequently get actual musicians and music-making right? I’m sure this same problem exists to some degree for every specialization, but I’m a lifelong musician, so this is the one that most sticks in my craw. To wit, Annabel and her band are more of a 2-D cartoon than Terrance and Phillip.

Nevertheless, two-thirds of this movie is frighteningly effective mostly because (sorry to keep beating this drum) early on the monster is only suggested rather than shown outright, and the fact that she manifests through and because of traumatized little kids ratchets up the horror. Watch, e.g., for the scene where Annabel has her back turned to a noisy closet and thinks that one of the girls is the cause, only to realize both of them are downstairs. YIKES. I saw Mama in the cinema when it opened and (I’m unashamed to say) watched this scene and others between my fingers, so, yeah, it’s a solid, spooky pick overall.

October Horror Goodie 9/31: Former neighbors’ Halloween decoration

The folks who used to live down the street from us once put up one of the best Halloween decorations I’ve ever seen. It kinda creeps me out to look at this photo even now, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t gone by this house since that day without thinking about it.

October Horror Goodie 10/31: Halloween II (1981)

How many legitimately good sequels are there? Godfather II, Toy Story 2 & 3, Aliens, maybe Iron Man 2 & 3, probably a few more. I’m no film historian, but I’m comfortable saying that, money aside, sequels generally suck. Halloween II, the sequel to one of the best and most iconic horror movies of all time, is not legitimately good, but it’s also not terrible. In fact, I’ll argue it does a pretty damn good job of continuing the story of Michael Myers’s return to Haddonfield to kill off the rest of his family. We begin with the very end of Halloween, just after Dr. Loomis shoots Michael, knocking him off the second-floor balcony onto the grass below, only to discover moments later that Mike is gone again. Mike knifes his way through town and eventually learns (via a mind-bogglingly stupid coincidence) that Laurie Strode, the survivor of the first film (and supposedly his adopted sister), has been taken to Haddonfield Memorial.

This is where Halloween II really succeeds: the atmosphere created by that dark, menacing, nearly deserted hospital would be unsettling even without Mike lurking around, but you add him and it’s downright terrifying. Sensing she’s in danger, Laurie hobbles out of her room and into the hospital only to run into Mike as he shanks a nurse from behind, and then the real chase ensues. It all ends with Loomis opening the oxygen tanks (“It’s time, Michael”) and blowing up some of the hospital’s first floor to rid the world of Mike (haha, right, as if!). And then the film sonically ends as it began: with the sweet strains of “Mr. Sandman.”

But here’s another reason both this film and its timeless predecessor are so lodged in my brain: their novelizations. In 1981-1982, an enterprising someone (or movie studio) published tie-in novelizations of both films, and me, being the Halloween-obsessive and book nerd I was/am, bought both and read them numerous times. As iconic as Halloween is, back then I actually liked the book more because it was more detailed and I liked the visuals in my head more than Carpenter’s (same with Halloween II). Alas, though, I lent both books to a girl I liked in college and never got them back, which really sucks because (a) it’d be super-cool to still have/read/loan them, and (b) they’re extremely rare now, and thus valuable.

Anyway, if you’ve never seen Halloween II, or if it’s been awhile, it makes for a good, spooky movie night.

October Horror Goodie 11/31: The Exorcist III nurse-station scene (1990)

Speaking of sequels, The Exorcist III is only a sequel to The Exorcist in name and in the tacked-on last third of the film. Regardless, it’s a decent horror movie (though William Peter Blatty’s source novel Legion is much better) that contains one of the best jump-scares ever. The scene is a slow-burning 5+ minutes, but it’s well worth your time.

October Horror Goodie 12/31: Shutter Island (2003)

Shutter Island isn’t a horror novel, but I found many of its passages suspenseful to the point of terror. In particular, the scenes detailing Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule’s search around the titular facility for a missing patient as the island prepares for an approaching storm are absolutely thrilling, and most of the book effectively maintains this high level of frightening tension. Now, if you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film adaptation, then you know the twist ending (I won’t give it away), and I had several friends tell me they figured out the twist ending perhaps 20 minutes into the film. I, however, was completely blindsided by the twist when I read the novel, which either means (a) I’m gullible af, or (b) Shutter Island is well-written good stuff. I think I’ll go with the latter.

Speaking of the film, it’s excellent, especially Ted Levine’s brief, scenery-chewing turn as the Warden:

WARDEN: If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?

TEDDY: Give it a try.

WARDEN: That's the spirit.

October Horror Goodie 13/31: The Descent (2005)

Still deep in the early stages of healing after losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and a group of outdoor-adventurer friends go on an ill-fated caving expedition. What follows is an exceptionally well-made horror film whose details I’ll spare in case you haven’t seen it, and I want to say “you must see this,” but, frankly, this is not a movie for the faint of heart. It’s rare in my experience to encounter a film this extreme that also deftly builds suspense, allows for thematic analysis, AND centers wholly on strong multidimensional women who aren’t there merely to be sexual objects and/or victims (and WOW does “victims” work in multiple, interesting ways here). Highly, highly recommended for horror fans with strong constitutions.

October Horror Goodie 14/31: Saturn by Francisco Goya (1820-1823)

I first saw this painting in a high-school history textbook (where it was called Saturn Devouring One of His Children), and it has spooked me ever since. To me, it’s like a visual representation of what traditional black-metal vocals sound like, which is neat because it’s one of Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings.” I hope to see it in person at the Prado someday.

October Horror Goodie 15/31: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The older a horror film gets, the less effective it is. Like everything else in human existence, this statement could never be 100% true across the board, yet I argue the premise holds up most of the time. Night of the Living Dead, for instance, cannot possibly still carry the same power for modern audiences that it must have for those in 1968 when it was released – virtually everything about it looks, feels, and sounds quaint (if not downright archaic), from the faded-looking visual palette and crackly score to the generally wooden acting (and I don’t mean the undead). The film’s influence and legacy, of course, are beyond question, but its scares cannot reasonably be expected to hold their potency across 50 years of technical filmmaking innovation and evolving narrative patterns. (FWIW, the opening sequence of Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorites in all of cinema, and, yes, it still creeps me out – the atmosphere it creates remains full of palpable dread that shambles into outright terror.)

Rosemary’s Baby is one of the major exceptions to what I say above. Also released in 1968 (what a shock that such an objectively awful year for U.S. sociopolitics spawned genre-defining horror films), Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, John Cassevetes), newlyweds who move into a new apartment and gradually learn that their next-door neighbors, Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer), are Satanists. To modern sensibilities, this plot must sound positively tame, and, yeah, the way everything unfolds seems pretty tame overall. But Rosemary’s Baby works like gangbusters even now, 50 years on, because the film (a) builds suspense masterfully by taking its time, (b) gives almost nothing away / confirms nothing until the very end (read: the final 5 minutes), and (c) treats the goings-on realistically and matter-of-factly no matter how bonkers they seem (e.g., Rosemary’s “dream sequence” might be weirder now than it was back then – it is fucking bizarre).

Allow me to use myself as a mini-case study. I was aware of this movie and its reputation for decades, but I knew almost none of its specific details, and I actually never watched it at all until perhaps 2011 (don’t ask me how – I guess I just never got around to it). So I watched it virginally, and I like surprises, so I’m adept at not picking up on clues (purposefully or not) in order to enjoy the eventual payoff. And holy shit did that method work well with this film. I knew, of course, that Guy and the Castevets and everyone else in NYC may have been gaslighting Rosemary, but I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen when Rosemary unblocked the secret passageway between her neighbors’ apartment and her own and snuck into the gathering next door. This gathering turns out to be a full-on assembly of Satanists, and I’m convinced almost nothing can prepare you for seeing and hearing these upper-middle-to-upper-class people in suits and dresses looking very “normal” shout “SATAN LIVES! HAIL SATAN!” as they explain to Rosemary that her son (whom she was earlier told had died during childbirth) is right over there in a black crib and that he is the literal son of Satan, Rosemary having been impregnated by him during her “dream.” At the risk of projecting my own reactions onto others, I think it’s a testament to how firmly entrenched our collective / received concepts of good and evil are that we can still be shocked by the idea that people who look respectable or clean-cut or “normal” or “typical” (ad infinitum, ad nauseum) could have, shall we say, bad intentions. In our current sociopolitical climate, this seems especially significant.

As a closing thought, even if nothing I say here sounds enjoyable or palatable to you, you should watch Rosemary’s Baby anyway just to see Ruth Gordon in action as Minnie Castevet (see photo). She very rightly won an Oscar for this unforgettable portrayal, which is outlandish and hilarious and singular and endearing and, in the end, terrifying. A character for the ages in a film for the ages.

Thats it for now! More to come!

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