Fright Club: Twist Endings in Horror

No genre has more invested in the twist ending – in being able to pull the rug out from under you at the last possible second – than horror. The best are the films that truly sneak up on you, making you re-examine everything that preceded the surprise.

Andy Ussery of Black Cat’s Shadow podcast joins us and he has an entirely different list of movies – that’s how many there are! Kind of makes you want to listen to the podcast HERE, doesn’t it?

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Is it a brilliant movie? Will George be happy it made the list? That’s a lot of no right there, but honestly, how do we not acknowledge this stroke of genius?

Poor Angela (Felissa Rose)! She witnesses the death of her beloved father and, while still apparently quite traumatized, is asked to just go along with weird Aunt Martha’s (Desiree Gould—amazing!) whim.

Well, it doesn’t work out well for Angela or any of the staff or youngsters at Camp Arawak. But the damage you can do with a curling iron is hardly our concern today. No, it’s that final shot. The money shot. That face! That hairy chest! That wang!!

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker directed Pink Floyd: The Wall. That has literally nothing to do with this list, but still.

In Angel Heart, Parker develops a steamy, lurid atmosphere as we follow private dick Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) through the bowels of New Orleans in search of information on crooner Johnny Favorite.

Rourke’s performance is key to the film’s unseemly feel. A sinner – never a traditional hero – still, Angel’s sympathetic and full of a disheveled charm. You’re sorry for him even as you know he’s outmatched and probably undeserving of your pity. He knows it, too, and that’s what makes the performance so strong.

That, and the sheer diabolical presence of an unsettlingly understated Robert DeNiro. That hard boiled egg thing! Love!!

Bloodshed on the bayou – languid and unseemly.

Frailty (2001)

In 2001, actor Bill “We’re toast! Game over!” Paxton took a stab at directing the quietly disturbing supernatural thriller Frailty.

Paxton stars as a widowed dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.

Whatever its flaws – too languid a pace, too trite an image of idyllic country life, Powers Boothe – Frailty manages to subvert every horror film expectation by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.

Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity over whether this man is insane, and his therefore good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys. Or could he really be chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God?

Brent Hanley’s sly screenplay evokes nostalgic familiarity, and Paxton’s direction makes you feel entirely comfortable in these common surroundings. Then the two of them upend everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if they’ve challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.

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), heighten the creepiness.

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=ISch6Fi-q0A

The Sixth Sense (1999)

h, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.

A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.

With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.

Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.

Fright Club: Best PG-13 Horror

Who wants to scare your kids? Because there is ample opportunity to do so without breaking any laws. Yes, year after year the cinemas are lousy with God-awful PG-13 horror (Rings, Ouija, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man) aiming to cash in on the underaged market with jump scares and lazy writing.

But, if you look closely you can find some scary shit. Nightmares in the making. So, we looked closely…

6. The Grudge (2004)

The amazing thing about The Grudge’s PG-13 rating is the remarkable amount of violence in this film. There is a death, dismemberment or supernatural act in very nearly every single scene in the movie.

There’s also the larger, scarier idea of a contagious haunted house. You’re not just in jeopardy when you’re in it. This shit comes home with you.

The Grudge is one of the rare American remakes of J-horror that stands up, partly because the antagonists from the original are involved (Yuya Ozeki as the terrifyingly adorable Toshio and Takako Fuji as the just terrifying Kayako). It’s also a benefit that director Takashi Shimizu (who also wrote and directed the original, Ju-on) is back, and that he keeps the setting in Japan. Plus those creepy-ass sounds!

5. Insidious (2010)

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell took a break from each other after a disappointing follow up to their breakout 2004 collaboration Saw (Dead Silence—yeesh). The the pair were back strong in 2010 with a wildly imaginative descent into “the further.”

This is the film where Wan finds his way as a director, and a director of horror in particular. Whannell’s bold story offers plenty of opportunity to work, and the atmosphere, practical effects and clever use of jump scares has become the trademark of the filmmaker.

They are also the elements that help this genuinely frightening effort maintain a PG-13 rating. Man, this guy knows how to milk that rating, doesn’t he? That lady in black, that red-faced guy, the whole organ thing, that kid? Tiptoe through the Tulips?

The pair takes a ghost story premise and does what very few people can do well: shows us what we are afraid of.

4. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Oh, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.

A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.

With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.

Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.

3. The Woman in Black (2012)

Director James Watkins was fresh off his underseen, wickedly frightening Eden Lake. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (working from Susan Hill’s novel) had recently written the films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both of which are awesome. And star Daniel Radcliffe had done something or other that people remembered…

I’d have been worried that Radcliffe chose another supernatural adventure as his first big, post-Hogwarts adventure were it not for the filmmaking team putting the flick together. Goldman’s witty intelligence and Watkins’s sense of what scares us coalesce beautifully in this eerie little nightmare.

A remake of a beloved if rarely shown BBC film, the big screen version is a spooky blast of a ghost story. It makes savvy use of old haunted house tropes, updating them quite successfully, and its patient pace and slow reveal leads to more of a wallop than you usually find in such a gothic tale. Glimpses, movements, shadows—all are filmed to keep your eyes darting around the screen, your neck craned for a better look. It’s classic haunted house direction and misdirection laced with more modern scares.

Ten points for Gryffindor!

2. 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), heighten the creepiness.

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=ISch6Fi-q0A

1. The Ring (2002)

Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.

This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a videotape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.

The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Buñuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!

And Samara.

From cherubic image of plump-cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created.

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

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.