Tag Archives: Golden Spiral Media

Fright Club: The Help

From The Omen‘s Mrs. Baylock to Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s domestic and handyman, you’ll find questionable help aplenty in horror (and not quite horror). Chan Wook Park’s The Handmaiden explored the dual sized anxiety of having a stranger living in your house – or being the stranger living in someone else’s house.

Good horror directors know how to pick that scab, because having a stranger inside the household is unnerving, but being that stranger can be even worse.

6. Estranged (2015)

Going home again can be a drag, but it proves especially tough for January (Amy Manson) in director Adam Levins’s Estranged. Recovering from a near-fatal accident, she’s wheelchair-bound and stricken with amnesia. Even so, something feels completely wrong about the stately mansion and doting family she returns to for her recovery.

Estranged pulls you slowly through the twisty mystery of January’s recuperation and the unusual family she’s found herself a part of. So much of what Levins is working with could easily feel stale – amnesia? Wheelchair-bound invalid in a spooky, isolated manor? There’s even a butler in full gear. All you need are Scooby and the Mystery Machine and we’d have some real sleuthing on our hands.

The film offers an appealing blend of familiar and novel, repellent and elegant – forever playing with the idea that there is something foul and festering beneath the surface of this lovely home. His eye for detail and his cast’s natural ability help pull the whole ordeal together into a satisfying, if understandably unpleasant, product.

5. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House(2016)

Writer/director Osgood Perkins (Blackcoat’s Daughter) spins an effective ghost story with this one.

Lily (Ruth Wilson) has been hired to nurse famous New England author Iris Blum during her final months. Blum made her name writing spooky books Lily’s too afraid to open, and she regularly mistakes Lily for someone named Polly.

Polly is the main character in Blum’s most famous novel, about a beautiful bride who dies in an old New England home – not unlike the home Lily now finds herself rattling around with no company but the bedridden and mainly catatonic old woman.

A feat of atmosphere, very smartly written and quietly observed, the film generates tension early and builds on it masterfully for the full 87 minutes. Old fashioned but never dated, it’s a throw-back spook fest that can’t help but pull you in.

4. The Others (2001)

Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming.

She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.

The new servants seem to understand their roles – maybe too well.

With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.


3. The Shining (1980)

You know who you probably shouldn’t hire to look after your hotel?
Jack Nicholson.

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

The hypnotic, innocent sound of Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel against the weirdly phallic patterns of the hotel carpet tells so much – about the size of the place, about the monotony of the existence, about hidden perversity. The sound is so lulling that its abrupt ceasing becomes a signal of spookiness afoot.

Nicholson outdoes himself. His early, veiled contempt blossoms into pure homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.

He’s not the caretaker management expected, but really, was Grady? Like Grady and Lloyd the bartender, Jack Torrance is a fixture here at the Overlook.

2. The Innocents (1961)

Little Miles and Flora – orphaned nephew and niece of a selfish London bachelor – need a new governess. Uncle hires the clearly brittle Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) based on her letter confessing that more than anything, she loves children.

The ease with which he charms her into taking the position, and the first of the film’s regular mentions of imagination as a gateway to the truth, predict quite a lot.

Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Kerr’s performance is the perfect central image in The Innocents, the best of many screen adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Is Kerr’s hypersensitive governess turning delusional as she spirals toward spinsterhood, or are her angelic charges in danger of becoming possessed by the spectral lovers who seem to haunt the property?

Thanks to Kerr, the wickedly cherubic turn by Martin Stephens (the most popular child actor in England’s Fifties and Sixties) as young Miles, and Freddie Francis’s gorgeous black and white photography, this eerie ghost story is a glorious study in the shadowy line between reality and imagination.

1. Get Out (2017)

When white Rose (Alison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet the fam, she assures him race will not be a problem. How can she be sure? Because her Dad (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama’s third term “if he could.” It’s the first of many B.S. alerts for writer/director Jordan Peele, and they only get more satisfying.

Rose’s family is overly polite at first, but then mom Missy (Catherine Keener) starts acting evasive and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets a bit threatening, while the gardener and the maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, both black – whaaat?) appear straight outta Stepford.

Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.

Get Out is an audacious first feature for Jordan Peele, a film that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.


Fright Club: Underestimated Women in Horror

Horror is built, in large part, on the concept of the underestimated woman. What else is a final girl? But the label doesn’t just fit the bloody survivor. There are other women you don’t want to sell short. Mrs. Voorhees, anyone? How about Carrie White? Overlook these chicks at your own peril.

Who are the women of horror you should absolutely not, for any reason, underestimate?

5. May (2002)

Lucky McKee’s 2002 breakout is a showcase for his own talent as both writer and director, as well as his gift for casting. The entire ensemble surprises with individualized, fully realized, flawed but lovable characters, and McKee’s pacing allows each of his talented performers the room to breathe, grow, get to know each other, and develop a rapport.

More than anything, though, May is a gift from Angela Bettis to you.

As the title character, Bettis inhabits this painfully gawky, socially awkward wallflower with utter perfection. McKee’s screenplay is as darkly funny as it is genuinely touching, and we’re given the opportunity to care about the characters: fragile May, laid back love interest Adam (a faultless Jeremy Sisto), hot and horny Polly (a wonderful Anna Faris).

McKee’s film pulls no punches, mining awkward moments until they’re almost unendurable and spilling plenty of blood when the time is right. He deftly leads us from the sunny “anything could happen” first act through a darker, edgier coming of age middle, and finally to a carnage laden climax that feels sad, satisfying, and somehow inevitable.

4. The Loved Ones (2009)

Aussie teen Lola (a gloriously wrong-minded Robin McLeavy) asks Brent (Xavier Samuel) to the school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.

Writer/director Sean Byrne quietly crafts an atmosphere of loss and depression in and around the school without painting the troubles cleanly. This slow reveal pulls the tale together and elevates it above a simple work of outrageous violence.

Inside Lola’s house, the mood is decidedly different. Here, we’re privy to the weirdest, darkest image of a spoiled princess and her daddy. The daddy/daughter bonding over power tool related tasks is – well – I’m not sure touching is the right word for it.

The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, unique piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter. It’s a wild, violent, depraved way to spend 84 minutes. You should do so now.

3. Audition (1999)

Audition is a phenomenally creepy May/December romance gone very, very wrong.

A widower holds mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.

Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror.

Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax.

By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.

Keep an eye on the burlap sack.

2. You’re Next (2011)

We’ve put this movie down now and again – mainly because it didn’t quite live up to expectations on first viewing. But there is one thing you can absolutely say for You’re Next – no one saw Erin (Sharni Vinson) coming.

Adam Wingard’s film – written by frequent collaborator Simon Barrett – crashes the anniversary of a snipey, bitchy family, celebrating at their isolated, ostentatious country place.

When masked marauders start picking off family members, party plus-one Erin shows off some skills. Level headed, calm, savvy and badass to the bone, she always knows what to do, how to do it, where to nail it, and the most vulnerable spot to land a punch.

No one knew what she had in store for them.

1. The Woman (2011)

There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleek (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.

The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Notorious horror novelist and co-scriptor Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. And director Lucky McKee – in his most surefooted film to date – has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see.

McIntosh never veers from being intimidating, terrifying even when she’s chained. Though she speaks nary a word of dialog, she’s the most commanding presence on the screen. And though Chris Cleek may not yet realize it, the true Alpha is never really in doubt.

Fright Club: Military Horror

War is hell, which makes it obvious fodder for horror films. It’s kind of amazing there aren’t more that really mine the carnage and insanity of battle, but those that do it well can make social commentary while getting under the audience’s skin. The films we celebrate today do both really well, plus – monsters! Hooray!

5. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) (2001)

The Devil’s Backbone unravels a spectral mystery during Spain’s civil war. The son of a fallen comrade finds himself in an isolated orphanage that has its own troubles to deal with, now that the war is coming to a close and the facility’s staff sympathized with the wrong side. That leaves few resources to help him with a bully, a sadistic handyman, or the ghost of a little boy he keeps seeing.

Backbone is a slow burn as interested in atmosphere and character development as it is in the tragedy of a generation of war orphans. This is ripe ground for a haunted tale, and writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s achievement is both contextually beautiful – war, ghost stories, religion and communism being equally incomprehensible to a pack of lonely boys – and elegantly filmed.

Plus the ghost looks awesome. Del Toro would go on to create some of cinema’s more memorable creatures, and much of that genius was predicted in the singular image of a drowned boy, bloody water droplets floating about him, his insides as vivid as his out.

Touching, political, brutal, savvy, and deeply spooky, Backbone separates del Toro from the pack of horror filmmakers and predicts his own potential as a director of substance.

4. The Crazies (1973, 2010)

We’re cheating here, but George Romero’s 1973 insanity plague flick offers much, as does its 2010 reboot by the otherwise useless Breck Eisner, so we’re combining.

Just three years after Night of the Living Dead, the master found himself interested in taking his zombiism concepts in a different direction. Romero is more literal in his thoughts on the Vietnam War in this film than in his previous efforts. Two combat veterans are at the center of the film, in which a chemical weapon is accidentally leaked into the water supply to a Pennsylvania town. Those infected go helplessly mad. Military incompetence, the needless horror of Vietnam, and the evil that men can do when ordered to do so are all central conceits in this film.

Romero may not have always had the biggest budget, best actors, or best eye for composition, but his ideas were so far ahead of their time that modern horror would not exist in its current form without him. His ideas were unique, not far-fetched, and they fed the imaginations of countless future filmmakers. You can see Romero’s ideas and images from this film repeated in 28 Days Later, Return of the living Dead, Signal, Cabin Fever, Super 8, even Rambo – and, obviously, in the remake.

Eisner’s version offers solid scares, inventive plotting, and far better performances than expected in a genre film. Both films begin by articulating humankind’s repulsion and fear of infection before introducing the greater threat – our own government. Eisner’s greatest strength is his cast. The eternally under-appreciated Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, unerringly realistic as husband and wife, carry most of the grisly weight, aided by solid support work from folks who are not afraid to be full-on nuts.

3. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Jacob’s Ladder is as unsettling and creepy as any movie you’ll watch. The entire 113 minutes transpires in that momentary flash between life and death, with both light and dark trying to make a claim on Jacob Singer’s soul.

Tim Robbins plays Singer with a weary sweetness that’s almost too tender and vulnerable to bear. In a blistering supporting turn, Elizabeth Pena impresses as the passionate carnal angel Jezebel. The real star here, weirdly enough, is director Adrian Lyne.

Known more for erotic thrillers, here he beautifully articulates a dreamscape that keeps you guessing. The New York of the film crawls with unseemly creatures hiding among us. Filmed as a grimy, colorless nightmare, Jacob’s Ladder creates an atmosphere of paranoia and dread.

By 1990, the Vietnam film has run its course, but with some distance from the post-Platoon glut, the “flashback” crisis that underlines Singer’s confused nightmare feels less stale. It allows the movie to work on a number of levels: as a metaphysical mystery, a supernatural thriller, and a horror film.

2. Dog Soldiers (2002)

Wry humor, impenetrable accents, a true sense of isolation, and blood by the gallon help separate Neil Marshall’s (The DescentDog Soldiers from legions of other wolfmen tales.

Marshall creates a familiarly tense feeling, brilliantly straddling monster movie and war movie. A platoon is dropped into an enormous forest for a military exercise. There’s a surprise attack. The remaining soldiers hunker down in an isolated cabin to mend, figure out WTF, and strategize for survival.

This is like any good genre pic where a battalion is trapped behind enemy lines – just as vivid, bloody and intense. Who’s gone soft? Who will risk what to save a buddy? How to outsmart the enemy? But the enemies this time are giant, hairy, hungry monsters. Woo hoo!

Though the rubber suits – shown fairly minimally and with some flair – do lessen the film’s horrific impact, solid writing, dark humor, and a good deal of ripping and tearing energize this blast of a lycanthropic Alamo.

1. 28 Days Later (2002)

You know you’re in trouble from the genius opening sequence: vulnerability, tension, bewilderment, rage, and blood – it launches a frantic and terrifying not-zombie film. Like zombie god George Romero, though, director Danny Boyle’s real worry is not the infected, it’s the living.

Boyle uses a lot of ideas Romero introduced, pulling loads of images from The Crazies and Day of the Dead, in particular (as well as Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder).
The vision, the writing, and the performances all help him transcend genre trappings without abandoning the genre. Both Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy are impeccable actors, and Naomie Harris is a truly convincing badass. Their performances, and the cinematic moments of real joy, make their ordeal that much more powerful.

It’s a tribute to the performances, Boyle’s direction, and writer Alex Garland’s (Ex Machina) vision that, even after a dozen or so terrifying set pieces, the most deeply unsettling scene is a quiet conversation between ragged survivor Jim (Murphy) and his alleged salvation, Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston).