Fright Club: Library Horror

Google has meant a lot of changes, perhaps the most tragic is the end of the old library scene in horror. While we find ourselves settling for the new cliche of the quick online search to uncover the hidden history behind a haunted home or town tragedy, this never used to be the case. Countless horror films led invariably to the Act 2 discovery in the old library. Either a helpful librarian carried large, impressive volumes to our hero at their tidy, green lamp lit library table, or a plucky sleuth scrolled their way through the old microfiche via the big microfilm machine.

How much do we miss those days? Enough to look into the very best in library horror.

Big thank you to Jennifer Snoek Brown of Reel Librarians for dropping loads of knowledge.

5. Se7en (1995)

Countless horror films begin Act 2 with a trip to the library. Act 1 has something creepy happening that puts our hero (or, more often than not, heroine) on edge and there’s nothing that can put them at ease except a little information search.

But David Fincher is not like other directors. While the beats are all here: big books stacked on an elegant desk, green lamps illuminating pen-and-ink drawings of the macabre and unsavory, a montage of pages being copied. But here, by flashing back and forth between Somerset (Morgan Freeman) doing the research and Mills (Brad Pitt) simultaneously studying case files, we learn a great deal more about what has happened and – don’t overlook all those decapitation images – what will happen.

The music gives the whole affair am appropriately religious fervor. This is how you make that cliche library scene work.

4. It (2017)

Poor Ben. It’s not enough that he pines in poetic silence for the lovely Beverly. It’s not enough that he’s the lonely new kid without even a posse of losers to hang out with (yet, anyway).

Nope, now he’s got intel and he doesn’t even have anyone to talk to about it.

This is the traditional “digging up big ol’ books about my spooky new hometown” scene, complete with a very creepy librarian. (Keep an eye on her in the background while Ben’s reading.)

But then comes the balloon. I have come to learn that a red balloon is never a welcome sight in a small town library.

3. It (1990)

Normally, we don’t include TV horror, but this scene is just so good! The Nineties TV miniseries is inferior to the later big screen adaptation (Part 1, anyway) in many ways, but not here.

Part of the credit goes to the fact that this film does not recreate that same, tired library scene. No microfiche, no big books on the history of Derry. Not in this scene. Just lunacy, Prince Albert in a Can jokes, and exploding, blood-filled balloons.

Plus Tim Curry, who improves any scene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmOLwrvH-Ag

2. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Another film that takes what you know to expect and serves it up to you in the most delightful way, Behind the Mask is among the greatest of all horror comedies and satires.

This particular scene points out the inevitability of that library research scene in horror movies. That would be reason enough to appreciate it, but Zelda Rubenstein (of Poltergeist, obviously) is the icing on the cake. Ever the dramatic, weirdly helpful librarian that the genre relies on for all its historical towny gossip, Rubenstein shines as a woman who really wants to shine in the spotlight.

Just one more reason this film is such a treasure.

1. Ghostbusters (1984)

No, it’s not horror – but it is a scary scene! In fact, for most people it is the scariest scene in Ivan Reitman’s comedy classic.

What makes it perfect is the tension it generates before the jump scare because we know Pete Venkman (Bill Murray, perfection) is going to get in trouble. You just can’t keep talking like that in the library.

Get her? Heh heh heh.

Truth Bombs

Stealing School

by Cat McAlpine

Senior April Chen (Celine Tsai) is days away from graduating from DuPont University, and she already has a lucrative job waiting for her in Silicon Valley. All she has to do is get through her academic misconduct hearing. But her TA, Keith Ward (Jonathan Keltz), is determined to pin her for plagiarism and as the hearing wears on tensions rise and secrets are unearthed.

In a mockery of a courtroom, Stealing School analyzes the personalities and egos that run rampant in academia, criticizing its self-importance, bureaucracy and institutional racism. A particularly good running gag is various character’s introduction of their thesis titles. If you’ve ever had a brush with higher education, you’ll recognize all the archetypes that writer and director Li Dong cross-examines.

Particularly brutal is the Canadian school’s PR policy which seems to rely entirely on “being better than American schools.” Their only answer to accusations of racism and misconduct is that at least they aren’t like the institutions to their south.

Stealing School has good pacing, and a delicious unfurling of tensions between various characters during breaks and in flashbacks. The film analyzes how important it is to be likable, rather than right or good. Keltz is absolutely loathsome and delivers the best performance of the film, being too eager, too righteous, too vindictive. Tsai matches him with a subtler performance, walking a moral gray area that has you unsure of her innocence until the final moments of the film.

The rest of the supporting cast matches their archetype well, all either jaded by the academic world or still obsessed with its ability to give them better opportunities. But Stealing School’s criticisms don’t stop at academia. Dong also explores racism in broad strokes and the toxic culture of tech that only asks that you provide good code.

Stealing School is a tight hour and 14 minutes, which keeps its mostly single setting from feeling claustrophobic. With good pacing and a satisfying end, this is a great watch for your evening, especially if you regret your degree.

Screening Room: The Father, Tom & Jerry, Cherry, Billie Eilish, Billie Holiday and More

Not Itchy and Scratchy

Tom and Jerry

by Hope Madden

Scooby-Doo is having a moment. The franchise got its first wide release feature film last year, and the brains of the Mystery, Inc. outfit, Velma, just nabbed her own spin off show. Why not dig deep and reintroduce us to other cartoon favorites?

Tom and Jerry make their case for relevance with a live action/animation hybrid by director Tim Story (Ride Along, Barbershop). The film sees the squabbling cat and mouse team relocating to New York City, where Tom hopes (presumably – he doesn’t talk so it’s hard to say definitely) to become a musician.

Jerry just wants to keep being a jerk.

Is it me, or is Jerry really the villain in this twosome?

They run afoul of Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz, who needs to fire her agent because she should definitely be getting better movies than this).

Kayla requires a new job after some insane, hand-drawn cat knocks her off her bike, ruining her delivery. She cons her way onto a hotel staff. Now if she can just prove that she is good enough and keep the guests’ (Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost) wedding-of-the-century on the rails, she’ll be fine.

Or will there be animated chaos?

Trying to make old school ‘toons fresh and interesting for a modern audience does not always work. Even Scoob from 2020 was a miss, but Tom and Jerry’s failure to entertain lands closer to the colossal disappointment of Garfield (a film so bad Bill Murray apologized for it in a death scene in an entirely different movie).

The animation sequences are hand drawn, so that’s a great change of pace from the lifeless CGI churned out in films like Earwig and the Witch. Too bad Story doesn’t know how to blend them with live action in a way that feels at all engaging.

T&J is long. The story, by Brigsby Bear writer Kevin Costello, is over-stuffed and under-enjoyable. He mistakes idiocy for lunacy, busy for kinetic. A lot happens, none of it interesting, none of it funny, all of it surrounded by a bombastic soundtrack. Surprisingly little of the adventure really has to do with the ‘toons, either.

There are long stretches of Kayla learning valuable lessons and Michael Peña affecting some kind of unplaceably bizarre accent.

When your funniest joke is about scooping animated dog poop, no one is enjoying themselves.

Girl, Uninterrupted

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry

by George Wolf

Two hours and twenty minutes – plus an intermission – for a documentary on a teenage pop star? Isn’t that a bit indulgent?

When you put it that way, probably, but director R.J. Cutler hardly wastes a minute of the time we spend with Billie Eilish (born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell – nice!). Bolstered by a goldmine of home and backstage video, The World’s a Little Blurry becomes a captivating window into the life of a talented young performer – and a generation coming of age in these often scary and confusing times.

Eilish first got noticed as a 13-year-old after she posted the song “Ocean Eyes” (written by her older brother Finneas O’Connell) on SoundCloud, and it became a million-streaming viral hit.

Billie describes her home-schooled L.A. upbringing as being “one big fucking song,” and there is no denying the family joy as we witness them all react to hearing “Ocean Eyes” on the radio for the first time.

From there, we see Billie and Finneas writing “Bad Guy” – the international smash that would springboard her to world tours and multiple Grammys – and this doc quickly becomes more than just another marketing project from the record label.

Billie is clearly a deep thinker – as insightful writers often are – and she isn’t afraid to put her darkness and vulnerability right there in the storefront window. But it’s clear that her family anchor is strong, and that big bro Finneas is not only a calming influence but a multi-talented musical MVP in his own right.

And along with the hits, Cutler gives us plenty of real human moments. From Billie getting her driving permit to meeting her idol Justin Beiber, from rolling her eyes at something her mom just said to embracing fans as “part of me,” the film captivates because it becomes the story of a family.

One member just happens to attract a little more attention.

That would be Billie.

Duh.

War Torn

Cherry

by Hope Madden

Ohio is trying to kill Tom Holland.

Last year we lured this sweety pie to Knockemstiff with the sole purpose of, well, knocking him stiff in Antonio Campos’s big screen adaptation of Donald Pollack’s novel The Devil All the Time.

And now Cleveland.

Filmmakers and brothers Joe and Anthony Russo—both fans of The Land, having filmed many of their Marvel films there—bring Nico Walker’s Cleveland-based semi-autobiographical novel to the screen. Cherry sees a young man, nameless through most of the film, make a bad decision and then pay for it dearly for the rest of his life.

That young man is played with as much humanity and tenderness as you’ve come to expect from Holland. You cannot root against this kid.

Walker himself, whose novel was adapted for the screen by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg, apparently wrote what he knew. The Russos take his tale and, in their best moments, inject a cynical visual commentary to offset Holland’s earnest good nature.

The star draws support from some impressive ensemble work. Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant) and Jack Raynor (Midsommar) deliver an excellent mix of tragedy and comedy, while Ciara Bravo gives love interest Emily a believably bruised soul.

The combination, when it works, generates a knowing story about a screwup who paid too high a price for one mistake but never lost his humanity.

It doesn’t always work, though.

Cherry clocks in at a hefty 2:20 and it feels for all the world like the Russos and their writers simply didn’t know how or where to cut Walker’s story down. The movie lacks focus.

And while there are clever stylistic choices made—the names of the banks as written on walls and other nods toward a subversive side commentary—the structure is far, far too standard. This should feel like no other movie you’ve ever seen because Walker’s story is really unusual.

Instead, Cherry seems too much like a string of broken person meets terrible consequences before facing personal demons thrillers.

Role Playing

The Father

by George Wolf

How much you’re moved by The Father will likely depend on how you see the central narrative device employed by director/co-writer Florian Zeller.

Is it a gimmick that cheapens the very subject he’s digging into, or is it an effective – even logical – new frame for a familiar picture?

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star as father and daughter Anthony and Anne. Now, with these Oscar winners as your leads, your device could be the mail-in offer from the back of a cereal box and it would most likely be riveting, but Zeller has more lofty ambitions.

Anthony’s memory is fading fast, forcing Anne to navigate his mood swings and growing combativeness while she looks for an in-home caregiver who can handle him. Young Laura (Imogen Poots) looks promising, but Anthony’s initial charm at their meeting gives way to insults and accusations about a plan to force him from his well-appointed flat.

But is it his flat? And who is the man in the living room (Mark Gatiss) who says he lives there?

Is Anne really planning to move to Paris with a new boyfriend, or is she still married to the impatient and angry Paul (Rufus Sewell)? And just who is that other woman who looks like Anne (Olivia Williams)? Zeller adapts his own stage play with a profound intimacy that feeds the intentional confusion.

In the last several years, movies such as Away From Her and Amour have mined their greatness through the effect of dementia on the longtime spouse of the afflicted.

But here, not only does Zeller make a sympathetic pivot to the adult child of an ailing parent, but his chamber piece finds its greatest resonance through the heartbreaking empathy that comes from giving us Anthony’s point of view.

And even if the whole affair does strike you as gimmicky, the transcendent heights hit by Hopkins and Colman (and indeed, the entire ensemble) make spending time with The Father more than worthwhile.

As artistic as it is nuanced, as lyrical as it is devastating, it’s a film with not only something to say, but a welcome new approach to saying it.

Up All Night

The Vigil

by Hope Madden

For the garden variety movie viewer (myself included), it can be hard to get comfortable with the idea of spending a bunch of time alone in a room with a corpse, even if that’s your job.

We always expect to see a figure sit up under that drawn sheet.

When done well, movies that pick that particular scab can be incredibly effective. Keith Thomas’s The Vigil is one such movie. He leaves us alone in a house with the late Mr. Litvak. But we’re not really alone, are we?

An endlessly tender Dave Davis plays Yakov, who has recently left the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s so recent, in fact, that he goes to a support group of others like himself, all of them in need of some kind of training to figure out how to live a “normal” life. And as much as Yakov really does want to distance himself, when his former rabbi approaches him about Mr. Litvak, well, Yakov just needs the money.

Yakov will serve as Mr. Litvak’s shomer, sitting with the body for the night to protect Mr. Litvak’s soul until his body can be interred in the morning. Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, remarkable as always) doesn’t want him there.

It’s a straightforward enough premise, something Thomas executes with plenty of spectral dread. What the basic outline and many of the jump scares lack in originality, The Vigil makes up for with the underexplored folklore and customs specific to Orthodox Judaism. The general ideas are common to the genre, but the specific acts and images are precise and certainly new to horror cinema.

As Yakov’s night wares dangerously forward, he faces a Mazzik. But, as is usually the case in films such as these, the real demons Yakov faces are his own.

Thomas’s screenplay may present that metaphor more bluntly than necessary, and certain scenes are just so obvious (old footage projecting on a wall near a diorama of newspaper clippings and photos). But the compassion the filmmaker has for both Yakov and Mrs. Litvak, combined with the impressive performances from both actors, gives the film a soft spot that heightens the dread and terror.

It’s a solid effort, one that reframes a story you’re used to in a way that gives it more depth and emotional power.

Enter at Your Own Risk

Wrong Turn

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Mark P. Nelson is kind of fixated on the social rifts in America.

His 2018 film Domestics followed the aftermath of an apocalypse intentionally deployed by a ruling class looking to thin the herd. The smaller herds only fracture into groups of radicalized, violent maniacs, though, and even your white bread nuclear family types are threatened.

Which is to say, this filmmaker brings a different perspective to the inbred cannibal franchise, Wrong Turn.

Yes, big city liberals on a hiking trip run afoul of Virginia rednecks. But where Nelson varies from the script of the 2003 original is in reimagining the antagonists.

We know there’s trouble afoot from the opening scene when Matthew Modine drives into the quaint Virginia town looking for his character Scott’s missing daughter (Charlotte Vega). The lovely blonde was last seen here, along with her African American boyfriend, another heterosexual couple, and a gay couple, one of whom is Muslim.

Because apparently not one of these people has ever seen a horror movie.

The film gets into trouble early by conjuring moments from Tucker and Dale vs Evil, which is a great movie. It’s an insightful lampooning of movies just like the one Nelson is trying to make, though.

Nelson’s more successful when he borrows a bit from the likes of Green Room and The Ritual, although he plants Wrong Turn’s folkloric barbarism firmly on American soil. This is a film about America.

If you’re looking for a movie about cannibal families, you will most definitely be disappointed.

The horror is less unseemly, all of it in support of Nelson’s image of a divided America. There are some startling moments of gore, and other more harrowing ideas that suit the picture well.

Nelson takes too long getting to the point, unfortunately. The film runs just under two hours, which is at least 20 minutes too long. A trimmer runtime might have helped the film leave more of a mark. Instead, Wrong Turn is a decent if unremarkable backwoods thriller.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkoCo1bpNRs

Best Served Cold

Rage

by Brandon Thomas

Revenge tales are a messy affair. Forget the buckets of blood you’re liable to wade through (metaphorically – of course). No, vengeance cinema revels in discomfort – the more emotionally taxing, the better. Put all of that together in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and you’ve got something that’s pretty hard to sit through.

That’s what director John Balazs’s film Rage delivers.

Noah (Matt Theo) and Madeline’s (Hayley Beveridge) marriage is already on shaky ground when we meet them. Petty grievances populate their interactions, and the physical component of their relationship is all but forgotten. Their bond is forever fractured when a violent home invasion leaves Noah comatose, Madeline traumatized, and another family member dead. As the two begin to pick up the pieces, the realization that one of their attackers is still out there spurs them into irrational action. 

There’s no shying away from the brutality of violence here. There’s no celebration of it either. Gratuitous isn’t quite the right a word to describe anything in Rage. The violence is meant to make us wince and squirm, not cheer and pump our fists. 

While the ferocity comes in short bursts, the emotional impact is given far more time to breathe. The trauma suffered by Noah and Madeline takes up the bulk of the film’s running time, and it’s here where the real pain is inflicted. Madeline’s near-catatonic state in the latter half of the film is more disturbing than any physical scar could be. 

Rage occasionally abandons Noah and Madeline’s point of view to follow the detective (Richard Norton from Mad Max: Fury Road) working their case. Focusing on the police procedural side of the story takes away some of the urgency around the couple’s crumbling relationship, and, at times, threatens to stop the film dead. As the tension and drama surrounding Noah and Madeline’s actions increase later in the film, it only goes to highlight how unnecessary the police point of view ultimately is. 

Rage isn’t the first film to comment on the never-ending cycle of violence that vengeance can create. It is, however, one of the few films to spend more than a fleeting moment on the emotional ramifications of random brutality.