Halloween Movies

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Romana

Here we see my kitten on my lap from a webcam picture I took a few days ago.

There are two ways to observe Halloween. One is to do stuff and the other is to sit around with your kitten and watch stuff on Netflix all day. My original plan was the second option, because I’m a loser or something. As it so happens, though, Thursdays are the days when I have plenty of time to devote to homework and to all of the pleasure reading and online thing-doing that I don’t have time for during the rest of the week. So the aforementioned kitten and I have just been watching a little bit of internet television today and I have thus not really done anything to observe Halloween. But I have decided to acknowledge the Halloween-ness of today by listing Halloween-ish movies that I have seen and giving my opinion of them. With the exception of one movie that I don’t really remember, I have rated them on a four-category scale from “You’ll have seen all that this movie has to offer if you watch the trailer on youtube” to “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this movie”. There are sixteen things on the list, including recent horror movies, classics, and family movies that seem related to Halloween. I should perhaps add a bit of a disclaimer saying that I’m not a big fan of horror movies in general, so my opinions on those movies will not necessarily be informative for anyone who has a particular affinity for the genre.

Not to be confused with the novel by Kate Chopin

Not to be confused with the novel by Kate Chopin

The Awakening (2011) Starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton

I saw this movie on Netflix a couple weeks ago when I was specifically looking for a Halloween-type movie. It’s a ghost story set in 1920’s England, and while I won’t give away any of the plot, I will say that I enjoyed it because it’s creepy in a fairly thought-provoking way, rather than relying on gore or special effects to startle the viewer into feeling fear. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any gore or disturbing images; I can understand why it’s rated R. (It’s also worth noting that it has more sexual content than is necessary for the plot) But I think that it has value in terms of being interesting, and I would consider it to be a worthwhile horror movie.

My rating: Recommended

Black Swan (2010) Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Although it has nothing to do with Halloween and doesn’t involve any undead or otherwise supernatural creatures, I’m including it on this list because it’s been classified as a thriller. (Cue Michael Jackson music) I’ve only seen it once, and yet I could find quite a lot to say about it, both from a dancer perspective and from an over-analytic English major perspective. But for the purpose of this blog post, all that’s really relevant is its value as a scary movie, and in that sense, it’s very good. I found it to be more disturbing than a typical ghost or zombie story because it feels closer to real life. The frightening aspects of this movie mainly boil down to the mental and emotional problems of the characters; the protagonist in particular has a very weak personality and a progressively fragile grasp on reality. I think it’s actually fairly realistic to imagine that the mental instability that she faces is what would happen to any dancer who somehow managed to rise to such a high status in a major ballet company without developing strength of character. In my opinion, this movie never answers the question of what is hallucination and what is real, and that ambiguity is what keeps this movie in your head long after you’ve seen it.

My rating: Recommended

It's a cool picture anyway

It’s a cool picture anyway

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) Starring Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison

Okay, I admit it; I fell asleep twice while watching this movie and missed probably about half of it, including the end. That’s kind of a bad sign for this movie, because technically, horror movies aren’t supposed to put you to sleep. But I probably should acknowledge that it was well past midnight and I was already in bed. From what I saw, it looked like it had some very interesting themes and philosophical ideas, and I’m actually curious enough about it that I might at some point watch it when I’m awake. But it’s certainly not one of my favorites from this list. I felt like the scary parts weren’t very effective and relied too much on gore and special effects, and it seemed to me that it had a lot of unnecessarily mature content.

My rating: It’s worth your time if you have time to spare

Carrie (1976) Starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving

I promise, there will be some non-R-rated movies on this list, but this is not one of them. This movie is a fairly typical high school coming-of-age movie with all of the stock characters and a plot that revolves around who is or is not going to the prom. But then the movie takes a very sudden, yet totally predictable shift into a violent and bloody ending. Maybe it wouldn’t be so predictable if it wasn’t given away by every review or synopsis, but I guess that might be necessary, because an audience doesn’t want to watch a horror movie when they thought they were watching a typical high school coming-of- age movie. With that being said, I thought it was a relatively good movie, but not necessarily deserving of its reputation as a horror classic.

My rating: It’s worth your time if you have time to spare

E.T. (1982) Starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

Here’s the part where I come to a movie that isn’t a horror movie and that could be classified as a family movie. I don’t really think of it as a Halloween movie, but a prominent part of it does take place on Halloween, so it counts. You can tell it’s awesome because the music is by John Williams, and because all of the main characters are humorous and cute and lovable.

My rating: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this movie

Just remember: Frankenstein is the scientist dude. This guy here is called Frankenstein's monster.

Just remember: Frankenstein is the scientist dude. This guy here is called Frankenstein’s monster.

Frankenstein (1931) Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff

I actually don’t remember this very well; I only saw it once and that was many years ago when I was but a small child. But it’s a famous classic and I’ve seen it, so it was necessary to put it on the list.

My rating: NA ’cause I don’t really remember it

Ghostbusters (1984) Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver

To be honest, I would have totally forgotten this one if my sister hadn’t made a tumblr post that said, “WHO YOU GONNA CALL?” a few hours ago. I saw this movie on Netflix a couple years ago and had high hopes for it because it has an awesome song, but as it turns out, the song is really the only awesome thing about it.

My rating: You’ll have seen all that this movie has to offer if you watch the trailer on youtube

House at the End of the Street (2012) Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Shue, Max Thieriot

I saw this one last spring break, which I mostly spent watching horror movies in my sister’s room, except when I fell asleep during them because I was sick. I don’t think I fell asleep during this one. We were very excited about it because it has Jennifer Lawrence in it and Jennifer Lawrence is cool. I found her really likable in this movie, and the plot was fairly interesting, but not quite enough to make it a really memorable movie that I’m inclined to recommend.

My rating: It’s worth your time if you have time to spare

Charlie BrownIt’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) Starring Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Sally Dryer

I have not seen this movie in such a long time. Now I really regret that I didn’t find time to watch it earlier today. This movie is important, y’all.

My rating: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this movie

Labyrinth (1986) Starring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud

This one is important, too. In fact, it was already my plan to watch it tonight, because I always try to watch it within a few days of Halloween. It’s not a horror movie, nor does it take place on Halloween, but it has goblins in it, so that’s Halloweeny enough. It’s a fantasy movie about a teenage girl who accidentally summons goblins to come and kidnap her baby brother, so then she has to go and rescue him, and that’s basically it. But there are lots of quotable lines and entertaining characters and eighties-ness in the meantime.

My rating: You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this movie

Michael Jackson's Thriller was the only really good zombie movie ever, as far as I know.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the only really good zombie movie ever, as far as I know.

Like, Every Zombie Movie Ever (Of all time)

Okay, I admit, I’ve only actually watched one zombie movie, and I don’t remember the title. (Although it was definitely one of the really famous ones) I am given to understand, though, that I am correct in my impression that most zombie movies are more or less the same. I don’t really like zombie movies because I feel that they rely on cheap startle tactics rather than playing off of psychological metaphorical connotations to instill fear, which is how horror movies ought to work. For more information, see this blog post from that time I watched that zombie movie.

My rating: You’ll have seen all that this movie has to offer if you watch the trailer on youtube

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) Starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor

It’s not really a Halloween movie, but it has a Halloween scene that is pretty much the quintessential depiction of the stereotypical old-timey trick-or-treating experience. So it at least earns a mention on a list of Halloween movies.

My rating: Recommended

Orphan (2009) Starring Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman

Now we’re back into relatively recent R-rated horror movies. This is another one that I saw with my sisters over spring break. It’s about a family that adopts a girl that turns out to be totally creepy and she kills people and stuff. I found it to be more thought-provoking than my short and facetious summary makes it sound, though. While it did contain some violence and gore, the horror element relied upon basic and relatable human fears, such as harm to loved ones, loss of control, and people about whom nothing is known.

My rating: Recommended

This here was the scariest part of Paranormal Activity I. Because, you see, she's standing there and looking at him.

This here was the scariest part of Paranormal Activity I. Because, you see, she’s standing there and looking at him.

Paranormal Activity (2007, 2010, 2011, and 2012 with another one coming in 2014)

I’ve only seen the first three, or rather, I’ve seen bits and pieces of the first three, and my sisters mocked me for falling asleep repeatedly. Guys, it was late and night and I was sick and had a really high fever that week, okay? Anyway, I actually didn’t really think much of these movies. They are metanarratives in that they are meant to be home videos that the characters are deliberately filming, and for that reason, there’s no background music and the camera never moves unless a character is holding it, and sometimes there will be a few minutes where there’s nothing much happening. I presume that this is intended to have the same effect as in certain old fictional books that have a blurb claiming that they’re true. But in my opinion, the complete lack of any cinematic techniques and effects made the movies dull.

My rating: It’s worth your time if you have time to spare

The Phantom of the Opera (various movie and TV adaptions including the 1925 silent movie with Lon Chaney, the 1990 TV movie with Burt Lancaster, and the 2004 movie version of the stageplay by Andrew Lloyd Weber)

The Phantom of the Opera was, for much of my childhood, one of my favorite stories in all of its manifestations. That included the book, the soundtrack with Sarah Brightman, all of the movies mentioned above, and the game that my siblings and I liked to play with the Legos. The Phantom of the Opera isn’t really a horror story, but it certainly does have a dark and creepy tone to it.

My rating: Recommended

Awkward confession: I sometimes say "Mel Brooks" when I mean "Mel Gibson" or vice versa. I know, I'm a terrible person.

Awkward confession: I sometimes say “Mel Brooks” when I mean “Mel Gibson” or vice versa. I know, I’m a terrible person.

Young Frankenstein (1974) Starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman

This movie was directed by Mel Brooks. That’s pretty much what you need to know about it. For the benefit of any readers who aren’t familiar with Mel Brooks’ work, I will helpfully add that it’s very, very silly.

My rating: Recommended

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How Horror Movies Could Be Better

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A few days ago, I made the stupid mistake of watching a zombie movie. In my defense, I didn’t do it because of a misguided expectation that I would really enjoy said movie or because I had any interest in observing images of gory dead people. I watched it out of an intellectual curiosity about what it is in zombie movies that appeals to popular culture. As I mentioned in a blog post that I wrote about a month ago, the fear of zombies is basically an extrapolation of the fear of loss of intelligence. I could imagine the possibility of a very interesting, intellectual, and well-scripted zombie movie that plays off of this fear rather than being a series of disturbing images. Unfortunately, the particular movie that I watched barely acknowledged this aspect of zombies and instead relied upon creepy background music, gory special effects, and the characters’ extreme emotions to make the movie scary. I didn’t find the movie to be thought-provoking in any way, just disturbing on a very superficial level.

One specific way that I can elaborate on this is to point out that there were several instances in which a zombie’s hand would suddenly smash through a window and startle both the main character and me. This seemed to be the director’s strategy for evoking fear in the viewer. The feeling of being startled is, in my opinion, the least cognitive and most superficial kind of fear. An equally effective but much more tasteful way of eliciting the same response from the audience would perhaps be a scene in which the camera slowly pans across a room that at first appears to be empty and silent, but then the viewer sees a humanoid figure, partially concealed or maybe translucent, just standing there silently and creepily. I would consider that to be a pretty scary scene.

Maybe I shouldn’t really be analyzing horror movie techniques in the first place, since I’m not a fan of the genre and actually have only seen a couple movies that could be classified as horror movies, none of which I have particularly enjoyed. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading ghost stories, and I used to write a lot of ghost stories, too. I frequently have nightmares which make very good material for scary short stories. I also discovered several years ago that writing scary stories makes me less likely to have disturbing dreams; it’s as if I use up the ideas before I have a chance to dream them. Anyway, the point is that I have figured out what makes a ghost story scary and memorable, and the key is that it has to be about more than death and disgusting images. It has to rely upon ideas rather than images to evoke fear.

There are certain ideas that people naturally find creepy. One of them is the idea of death, which is what every zombie or ghost story uses, but that’s so straight-forward and so basic that it doesn’t make for a good story in and of itself. Another is things that seem human, but aren’t, particularly if they are messed up in some way. A distorted reflection in a mirror, a doll with a crack across its face, a disembodied voice, a mysterious shadow that looks like a person’s face… Even if some of those things don’t seem scary without a creepy context, if you stick them in a ghost story, they’re very scary. The plot of good ghost stories frequently center around a certain inanimate object such as a mirror or a doll that works towards that effect.

Staircases are another creepy image, although that might be my personal opinion rather than a universal fact. I personally have a kind of phobia of staircases which probably comes from the fact that they often appear in my scary dreams, but I think there’s a specific reason for that. To my overly analytic and metaphoric mind, going up or down a staircase stands for changing something. You are going someplace different from where you already are, you can’t actually see where you’re going before you get there, and if something goes wrong in the transition, you fall down and get hurt. Stairs work well for ghost stories if you think of them as a metaphor for the difference between life and death. In fact, in fiction, the difference between life and death can be metaphorical for the fact that, in real life, things change and are disturbingly unpredictable.  I remember one time when I was trying to make metaphors from a song that involved death, and my family laughed at me and said that death is never a metaphor. I beg to differ rather emphatically; I think that in art and literature, death can be a metaphor for things that are a little less specific. Otherwise, why would anyone ever want to read a ghost story or watch a zombie movie? Horror movies would be better if they made use of these kinds of ideas and metaphors.