Monday, September 29, 2008

(Burial) Ground Rules

A couple notes on the selection and review process, as I await the start of my little experiment.

I won't be doing standard reviews, in the sense of outlining a film's entire plot or dramatis personae. I'm not interested in ruining anything for anybody, and there are plenty of better sources on the net for movie reviews. Mostly I'm interested in a film's impact -- how did it make me feel? Was I frightened or not? Films will be "graded" on style, gore, scare factor, and overall quality.

Barring perhaps one or two notable exceptions, none of the selections will be from the so-called "torture porn" subgenre that has come to dominate mass-market horror these days. Unlike some of my fellow fright flick fans, I find nothing enjoyable in films solely comprised of clever (and sometimes not-so-clever) ways of inflicting pain and suffering on nubile (and sometimes not-so-nubile) characters who typically possess all the depth of a bottle cap. That's not to say I want to know the life history of anyone who dies onscreen. I just have to care that they are dying. If only a little bit.

It's not a question of being squeamish. I've seen most of the Saw franchise and both Hostels and though the originals each had a interesting premise, their execution (pardon the pun) lacked any real style or substance. The makers of these films were entirely content to go for the gross-out, and while amply gross, they simply were not scary. Not in any lasting way. Much of this had to do with the choice of actors and the way these films were shot. While the individual acts of violence were fairly realistic, the films themselves and the actors who inhabit them were too pretty, too contrived, and ultimately, too poorly acted to give these films anything but a cartoon fiendishness.

The same cannot be said of several independent movies that, while also nominally falling under the category of "torture porn," are clearly a different animal altogether. I'm speaking of notoriously banned films like the August Underground series by Fred Vogel and more recently, Snuff 102. I am most definitely not a fan of those films either (anyone who claims such is either lying to impress their pubescent girlfriend, or falls squarely into the category of a sociopath), but no survey of the modern horror film could take itself seriously without at least some discussion of their influence and effect.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have already seen about half of the films selected. To a certain extent, this could serve to deaden their impact, but it should also allow me to be a bit more objective in assessing their overall quality (it's hard to see much with your hands in front of your eyes). Simply put, good films hold up under repeat viewings. Bad films do not.

So how did I go about selecting the ones I haven't seen?

Basically, I trawled and cross-referenced relevant forums and review sites. I'll admit a strong bias toward foreign and independent films and away from American remakes and mindless slasher flicks, so if you're the type who hates subtitles or loved the most recent regurgitation of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you will probably have more fun over at or

One or two of the films selected are not yet available to the American public (not at the time of this writing anyway). If you promise not to ask me how I acquired them, I promise not to tell you ;-) Whatever sins I committed against the creators of these films by short-cutting the standard distribution channels I hope to more than make up by spreading the good word about their shocking greatness. Assuming they're any good, that is...

On that subject, if anyone out there has access to a copy of Paranormal Activity, I would dearly love to hear from you before Hollywood manages to ruin what purports to be a really scary movie.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thirty Days of Night(mares)

Like many kids, I often wet the bed, um... I mean went to bed scared. Sometimes I just had bad dreams. Other times I suffered full-blown night terrors. As a result, I developed the seemingly counter-intuitive coping mechanism of deliberately thinking up the worst things imaginable, to both harden my skin, so to speak, and deny my trickster subconscious the pleasure of ambushing me with some new phantasm. For the same bizarro reasons I gravitated towards horror in film and literature. At five or six, I started watching Saturday afternoon creature features with my father and I’ve been hooked ever since. In my early teens I grew so absorbed by anything and everything horror-related that my folks started talking to psychologists. Then I grew up.

Sort of.

The truth is I never really lost my love of scary lit. and film. It remains a twisted love affair, though, because unlike most hardened aficionados, I still spook quite easily. More often than I care to admit, I spend the witching hour checking door locks, turning on lights, and searching my house for the sources of odd sounds while averting my eyes from shadowy mirrors.

So why on earth do I continue to feed the troll?

Who knows. Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, his seminal (and still unsurpassed) study of the genre, that horror films first grew to widespread popularity in the atomic era.
Perhaps horror really does serve a useful function for society, allowing us to transfer our real-world fears onto fantasy boogeymen and experience catharsis in the process. Perhaps, as he suggests elsewhere (and my childhood mind somehow intuited) there is also an apotropaic element to deliberately seeking out that which scares us most. By pre-screening the worst that can happen, do we in some way protect ourselves from that very occurrence?

Probably not.

I think the answer is both simpler and more troubling. At rock bottom, all of us are just slaves to our brain chemistry. As children, we push as many mental buttons as we can just to see what will happen. Most of these buttons deliver mild shocks of pain or pleasure. Some of them do nothing at all. A select few set off supernovas in our cerebral cortex. In between traffic jams and wiping our kids’ noses and preparing our taxes, we spend the rest of our lives looking for more of these live wires to grab. For some, it’s as simple as buying a new pair of shoes. For others, the piercing of flesh is required. For me, it’s sitting in the dark and getting scared. But not just any kind of scared. I don’t go skydiving or bridge jumping (well, except that one time, but that’s another story…). I’m not even a big fan of roller coasters. I’m too controlling for that. And too much the voyeur.

So, by now you are almost certainly asking yourself: Where the hell is he going with all this?

For those of you who follow such things, we are now entering the month of October, my personal favorite, and not only because it is the month of my birth. In Octobers past I have always partaken in mini movie marathons, indulging my taste for terror, but never truly pushing the envelope.

This year, to celebrate the kickoff of the Hinterzone, and in an oblique nod to our esteemed Republican candidates, I’m pulling out all the stops.

Every night this coming month I will screen a horror film and review it the following morning. To make things interesting—and to challenge the prevailing line of thought that claims no good horror movies are being made these days—I will limit my selections to films made in the last decade.

Can my fragile psyche survive the onslaught? Will I end up a quivering mass of neuroses (assuming that isn't already the case)?

Tune in, gentle reader, to find out.