A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Horror Movie Edition

Here are a few horror movies that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

movie poster for ready or not
Ready or Not (2019) missed me when it came out, but it’s a delightful, thrilling, winking part of the “the real horror is the rich” micro-trend, with a supernatural side order.
dvd cover of 2014 the grudge
Had never heard of obscure indie flick The Grudge from 2004, so thought I’d check it out. Not bad!
poster for doctor sleep
I wasn’t eager to see this or read the book it was based on. Living up to the legacy of a classic horror novel, and a classic adaptation that’s a genuinely great film that the book’s author never liked… seemed a difficult proposition at best. Turns out, what do I know? Doctor Sleep is the real deal.
movie poster for angel heart
Angel Heart was a fun, strange watch for me. Many people love it, and it is good, but lacking any sort of nostalgia for it? I thought it was an 80s supernatural thriller, with Robert De Niro mustering big Alec-Guinness-does-Star Wars energy.
I really enjoyed Hold the Dark. Lots to like, and I’m still thinking about it a month later, including the performances and dialogue, but this is one flawed film. Weird editing, lots of things way out of proportion, story-wise. If you like brooding, atmospheric A24 biz, check it out. (Maybe look around online for the opinions about how well Yup’ik language and culture are or aren’t represented here. Apparently the answer is complicated.)
the green knight poster
I’m grouping The Green Knight here because it’s A24 and vibes thoroughly with a lot of other A24 stuff. It has the darkness that underlies many, many fantasies and is a sumptuous watch. We saw it in the theater, and it was a sight to behold.
film poster for rebecca 2020
Apparently every die-hard Rebecca or du Maurier fan hated the 2020 version of Rebecca? Whatever! It’s great, and they’re all wrong. Check it out. (And if you don’t think it’s horror… watch it again.)

When Novels Attack

Reader, it’s been a minute.

When last I wrote, horror movies were on my brain, and so they still are. Since then, horror I’ve watched includes The Grudge (2004), Doctor Sleep, Black Christmas (2019), The Thing (2011), Angel Heart, Dark Was the Night, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions, The Girl With All the Gifts, The Block Island Sound, and As Above, So Below. You’ve probably heard of all of those, except maybe Dark Was the Night, which was pleasantly uneven and featured some unusual monster action. Also since then, the U.S. has resumed a semblance of its previous on-fire-everywhere normalcy, I’ve found a new love of musicals and a revived love of board games, summer has come, and the writing continues.

I finished the first draft of a novel in late April, and there was much rejoicing! The last time I did that was indecently long ago, and it feels good to be already on my way with Draft Two. As all the writers out there who hop between genres know, it’s a weird stretching sort of feeling when you’ve paused on writing shorter works and are no longer in the hum & fray of constant submissions. Still doing the thing, but most of the paddling is under the surface. What spurred the novel?

Around 2005, my intention was to write novels, with maybe a few other things along the way. Between then and now, I got published, translated, anthologized; became enamored of short stories and their writing; and experienced prolonged dejection over lack of getting an agent for said previous novel. I also went through Big Life Changes, in the form of years of elevated stress due to illness and deaths in the family. That’s mostly in the rear view mirror at this point, but I’ve come through it a different person.

Anyway.

Last year I acknowledged to myself that I was starting to get truly burned out on writing short. (Editors to whom I owe stories or essays: I will still come through!) I wanted to read and write stories I could roll around in, and for me that means novels. I was considering possibilities for a longer story… something about nuclear-powered vampire llamas… and then the pandemic hit. After the shock started to wear off, I realized that it was time to get going. I was going to be at home for a while, I’d been wanting to write long again, and the threat of mortality was here. With a vengeance.

And so I’ve been trying to Make Good Art. It’s going all right, and I hope that this book will land an agent when I query, hopefully later this year. If not? Whether a given story or novel finds a home, it’s on to the next.

All I have, as they say, is time.

library of congress photo

Watching Horror, “Classic” and Otherwise

image of vampire from 1922 nosferatu filmEarlier this month I read a Variety article about the last hundred years of horror films. It featured the usual suspects, but I had the nagging sense that I was missing some things about which I had vague ideas. So, naturally, I popped the films and their dates into Excel and quickly learned which of my vague ideas were on point, which were off-base.

In the “on point” camp, I’ve seen more recent horror films than older ones. No big surprise, though I was surprised to see how dramatic the shift is on the seen/unseen axis when it comes to films made since I was born. Likewise, while I like to think of myself as an “old horror movies” guy, apparently I’ve been a Universal Horror guy first, “old horror movies” second, 1920s horror dead last.

In the “off-base” camp, I’ve seen less Asian horror than I thought. When I started going down the list, I realized that my vague idea that I “hadn’t seen too many Asian horror films” could be more accurately described as “haven’t seen more than a couple of the biggest.”

In the “huh” camp, I apparently don’t watch horror movies much during times of serious stress or crisis. Not just when someone close to me dies, but at other life or job stress points. Sometimes I go back and rewatch the biggies of the period, but other times not.

If all of this sounds like excessive navel gazing for someone who doesn’t really write that much about horror films, you’re not entirely wrong. In the last couple years, though, I’ve been writing more horror or horror-adjacent nonfiction, as well as thinking about movies. (I had an essay planned for a volume on contemporary horror films, and I withdrew this month, as I’m 2020-blocked, and it’s just not moving quickly enough.)

I’ve read some of the standard horror film/studies books (Clover, Creed, Carroll, etc.), which, if you’ve made it this far, you probably have as well. Some of the more recent work I’ve enjoyed has included…

  • Orrin Grey’s Monsters from the Vault books.
  • Horror Pod Class, also featuring Orrin in recent seasons.
  • Aesthetic Horror, as well as more general film Twitter and YouTube sites
  • Xavier Aldana Reyes’ is a big name in the field right now, and I like his scholarly work (the affect stuff is killer), but I’ll confess to being especially charmed by his #gothiccinema366 project on Twitter this year.

I’m also a reader of various horror stories and novels that take film as their subject, whether Gemma Files’ Experimental Film or Stephen Graham Jones’ The Last Final Girl. I’ve contributed a story or two to the genre as well, including my “There Has Never Been Anyone Here” in Nightscript IV.

Do you have a list of “must-see” horror films? One you go back to pick new watching from? A favorite film book you use to guide your watching? Feel free to drop it in the comments. In addition to the titles and projects mentioned above, I love The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide.

I’ll close with with a still from a 1997 film I watched yesterday that did not make Variety‘s list… but which was a lot of fun.

still shot from anaconda

Out with 2015! In with 2016!

horsehead cover1) Horsehead was the movie that most surprised me this year. I’d heard nobody talking about it, and when I sat down to watch it on the recommendation of my highly cinema-aware friend, Gregory, I took it on faith that it was going to be interesting. It was unexpectedly my favorite movie watched in 2015, vying for sheer delight with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If you like horror, sumptuous visuals, surrealism, and shades of giallo, I recommend Horsehead wholeheartedly. Don’t waste time reading a summary; just watch it. This movie struck me as much more than the sum of its parts, and none of the writeups I saw really seem to capture the bits that I thought were magical. In future I’ll be on the lookout for more from Artsploitation Films.

cover of jeff long's the descent2) Twice this year I heard friends mention in passing The Descent, an unusual book that I read not long after it was published in 1998. Prior to 2015, I’d met virtually no one who had read it, and I hope the book finds new readers in 2016.

This book is a thriller, with airplane-reading pacing and the occasional plot hole, but it features an unusual depth of horror and worldbuilding that has to be read to be believed. No relation to the movie of the same name, but a fair bit of it does take place underground.

3) My friend Paul’s year-end reading summation is deep and rich, and an inspiration. Every time I see that sort of documentation, I itch to pick up a book, as well as to try things on the author’s list. I’d like to have a reading year more like that next year, so I’m starting a spreadsheet to track my consumption across various media (books, comics, movies, art, etc.), and to remind & inspire me when I’m in a lull. I assume there are apps or programs for this, but I wanted it done quickly, so I used Excel.

screenshot of spreadsheetI started by jotting down what I remembered from the last several weeks, but I didn’t get everything. As always for me, these sorts of efforts don’t tend to square well with things academical, which wind up being a combination of scanning, skimming, selective reading, and intense re-reading. This go-round I think I’m just going to set that aside as a concern. If it’s a book I read in toto, I’ll put it on the list starting in January, and if not… not. Likewise, I expect not to count most  individual stories, essays, posts, etc. read online, just as I’m ignoring random bits of TV—if it’s part of the Great Stew of Content, it probably doesn’t need to be counted.

Happy 2016!