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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bMEGtUxajY

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2JbO9lnVLE

Fright Club: Best Haunted House Movies

The Poltergeist reboot has us talking about the great haunted house movies over the years and how much they’ve changed. From the creaky old mansions to suburban horror to the curse that will stay with you even after you leave, ghosts have always been able to scare moviegoers and us. Here are our 5 favorite ghost stories:

5. Poltergeist (1982)

This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia.

Part of the original’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.

Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.

4. The Conjuring (2013)

James Wan built an old fashioned ghost story from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to.

Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re in the theater and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjk2So3KvSQ

3. The Orphanage (2007)

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because director Antonio Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. His camera captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

2. The Innocents (1961)

Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Deborah 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 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. Countless films – good ones, like The Orphanage and The Others – have walked similar, spooky hallways, but The Innocents will always be the standard bearer.

1. The Shining (1980)

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 Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.

Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into 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.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcat.

Fright Club: Best Horror Films of the Sixties

The Sixties offered a turning point in horror, redefining and reshaping a genre that would explode the following decade. The era saw horror evolve from the atomic paranoia that informed schlocky Fifties fare to more politically challenging, artistically relevant work – work that would shape the modern genre. Here are the five best films horror had to offer in the 1960s.

5. Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The formula behind this film has been stolen and reformulated for dozens of lurid, low-brow exploitation films since 1960. In each, there is a mad doctor who sees his experiments as being of a higher order than the lowly lives they ruin; the doctor is assisted by a loyal, often non-traditionally attractive (some might say handsome) nurse; there are nubile young women who will soon be victimized, as well as a cellar full of the already victimized. But somehow, in this originator of that particular line of horror, the plot works seamlessly.

An awful lot of that success lies in the remarkable performances. Still, the power in the film is in the striking visuals that are the trademark of giant French filmmaker Georges Franju. His particular genius in this film gave us the elegantly haunting image of Dr. Genessier’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob). Her graceful, waiflike presence haunts the entire film and elevates those final scenes to something wickedly sublime.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGNFynNqJ2A

4. The Innocents (1961)

Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Deborah 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 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.

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Along with Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby is part of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” – disturbing films of tension and horror in which metropolitan life and nosey neighbors conspire to drive a person mad.

Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet. By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary Woodhouse, but back in’69, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands?

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. Romero’s inventive imagination created the zombie genre and the monster from the ground up. Beyond that, the film’s shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one man turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.

1. Psycho (1960)

In making Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock made horror a legitimate genre by producing a movie that scared smart people, mostly by upending expectations. Hitch kills off his pretty lead in the first act, after letting us know that she has pre-marital sex and is capable of stealing large sums of money. What’s great about these revelations is that she isn’t judged for them. She’s treated as a sympathetic, likeable heroine – although the villain comes off as even more of an innocent. Anthony Perkins’s sexually confused, vulnerable, awkward killer is almost too sympathetic.

Hitchcock’s masterpiece is known best, of course, for the shower scene, and with good reason. But what changed history was his decision to give us a hero who is flawed and a villain (a full-on psycho, no less) that we can’t help but root for.

Listen to our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST for the whole bit.

Halloween Countdown, Day 19

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.

What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.

Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know) heightens the creepiness.

The house is as much a character in this film as anyone in the credits. Enormous and yet claustrophobic, filmed to tweak tensions with the sense that something lies just out of frame, gorgeously lit to ghostly effect, it’s a roomy old mansion that begs you to hear echoes of the past.

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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBLD46M3-OY

Halloween Countdown, Day 5

The Innocents (1961)

The film opens with a black screen, a child trilling a spooky tune about a heartbroken girl weeping beneath the willow where she and her lover once lay. Then the ghostly image of hands in prayer, and a woman’s whispered:

“All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them.”

Are those the only options? Maybe split the difference with some pizza and bowling? Kids enjoy bowling, especially if the alley allows bumpers. Fun for everyone, really.

But bumper bowling is not in the future for little Miles and Flora, the orphaned nephew and niece of a selfish London bachelor. Uncle hires the clearly brittle governess 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.

Fright Club Fridays: The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Some of the world’s best horror output comes from distant lands – like this gem from Spain.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

This looks like a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.

Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.

The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The realism and tenderness in her performance help one overlook flaws in the film’s storyline.

Examine it too closely and the backstory starts to crumble before you, but all is forgiven because of the final payoff – an ending that suits the characters, is faithful to the truth of the ghosts as Laura sees them, does justice to the exquisite atmosphere created in the film, and never feels inauthentic or obvious.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.