All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2011

7 Nov

AWWWOOOOOOOOOOOO!

ARRROOOOOOO!

Welcome kids, to the First Annual All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective! Intended as a way to embrace seasonal cheer (and pick away fruitlessly at the iron wall of cowardice between scary movies and my soft impressionable soul), I decided that every week in October, leading up to Halloween, I’d watch an increasingly scary movie. The final night would come, and having evolved a tougher exterior shell – by pounding it repeatedly with terror – I’d be ready for the scariest shit this holiday could conjure.

Clearly this was supposed to be a periodic thing throughout October, sort of like a “Horror Review of the Week”, but in keeping with my Olympian skill at dropping the fucking ball that obviously didn’t happen. So I’m now in the singularly unique position of being able to marshal my thoughts collectively through a Retrospective, and maybe – just maybe – emerge with something of significance to say for once. Can you even believe it.

I caution you now: be careful not to read any of this shit if you’re planning on seeing any of these movies. Which you should be. SPOILERS ABOUND. And this is a bit of a long’un, so feel free to skip ahead and read about whatever movie you…want to read…about. Ahem.

So with no further a-BOO (ohhh shit yeah I did), we don our hooded robes, affix our flashlights in the proper upward-facing chin position, maybe smear some pig’s blood on there, yeah that looks good, man, real scary, and plunge thusly into the shadow:

The Shining (1980)

We begin our trembling tale of terror with a horror classic so seminal, it was fermented in a scrotum: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. When I watched it this October it was only the second time I had seen it, so while its major setpieces no longer carried their original shock value, the dread at their anticipation made the film even more effective. This time around, I know they’re all doomed from the get-go. I know Jack begins losing his mind pretty much as soon as he sets foot inside the Overlook, so I can watch it unfold in the grim knowledge that it only gets worse. There’s a special satisfaction in watching him clack away at that typewriter, dreadfully aware of what he’s actually writing. And for god’s sake, Danny isn’t exactly a paragon of mental stability to begin with; the kid speaks as an invisible entity in a terrifying guttural croak as part of his daily goddamn routine.

What a well-adjusted and not-at-all-sinister little boy.

This a film about supernatural insanity, pure and simple. It’s about spirits, wholly malevolent, unreachable by reason or appeal, invading the minds of susceptible people and unraveling them gleefully. One of the things I found most scary is when Danny lapses into his silent apoplectic scream, intercut with awful images of blood pouring from an elevator, or twin girls, first standing symmetrically, then slashed to pieces across a hallway. It’s like the hotel seizes Danny physically, closing a fist over his mind and sending an electric current of terror into him. It’s profoundly disturbing, and it makes me even more uncomfortable about the thought of people having seizures (as if I needed any help with that).

I could type forever about the technical genius of the movie, too, but that particular circlejerk is pretty crowded already. Suffice it to say that Kubrick’s legendary attention to detail was never better put to use than in The Shining. It’s stuffed with tiny details and intentional idiosyncracies – when you watch it again, pay attention during the family’s drive up the mountains to move into the Overlook. As they talk, if you listen carefully, you can hear the wheels of Danny’s tricycle clattering over the hardwood hallway floors of the hotel. Are you even kidding me? Put that shit in your pipe and smoke it.

Chock to the brim with disturbing imagery, unsettling music, genuine performances, and the aforementioned technical wizardry, The Shining deserves every bit of the meticulous analysis and attention it gets. I rate it a Spine Tingle out of Goosebumps.

Psycho (1960)

Next we go way back, to a film some consider to be the genesis of the genre, spawning a set of terrible twins: Slasher and Horror. If you’re on the edge of your seat, it isn’t from excitement, it’s your terrified ass waiting for a chance to bolt from the room. See, the thing about being the Master of Suspense is you tend to make incredibly suspenseful things. I can only imagine how stressful an experience it would be to use a Hitchcock brand toaster.

DING AAAUGH

It’s amazing to me that such a dated movie can have such a visceral effect – you’re put off right from the start, when Bernard Hermann’s unreasonably tense score slaps you across the face during the opening titles. There isn’t a moment you’re not ill-at-ease, even when perfectly innocuous things are happening. That’s the genius of this movie: what is plain, boring, and uninteresting becomes highly suspect. If The Shining was about supernatural insanity, Psycho is about perfectly normal wheat-fed ol’ fashioned home-grown insanity. You’re not sure why you don’t trust the entirely affable Norman Bates, but by god there’s something terribly wrong with that asshole, you’re sure of it. Mastery of the craft, right there.

Speaking of mastery, the iconic shower scene really threw me for a loop the first time I saw Psycho. First of all, I hadn’t grasped the audacity of killing off your main character forty five minutes into your movie; that’s some crazy shit! And of course, that’s the reason it’s so shocking. You really don’t expect it to happen, in the same way you don’t expect the bad guy to win; you’re just not prepared for the director to take hold of the wheel and yank it sideways like that. That would be breaking the rules.

But break the rules Hitchcock does, and with mirthful abandon. The scene is edited so precisely, and its effect is so disturbing, that I needed to go back and watch it piece by piece after I had collected myself. You know something I noticed? You never see the knife go in. Not once. There’s a fleeting, subconsciously Freudian shot of the blade sidling up to Marion’s trembling wet belly, but it lasts less than a second. And there’s so little blood! It might be my jaded gore-proof approach, but I swear you’d bleed way more than that if you were stabbed that many times. But, again, Hitchcock flips the status quo his big ol’ tea-sippin’ bird, and shows a tiny trickle of thin black liquid, diluted by the shower, disappear quickly down the drain. And the drain morphing into Marion’s glassy, just-dead eye, her expression full of confusion and fear, face squished against the bathroom floor…Gaah I’m getting shivers!

It’s funny, too – I had seen the shower scene before I saw the whole movie, and once placed in context it blew my mind. I heard Norman’s “mother” shouting at him about Marion, and then the curtain rips back and you can clearly see an old woman’s scraggly bun and tattered scarf. I remember actually vocalizing my surprise to an empty room: “Oh my god…it was the mother!” I knew someone killed the girl in the shower, but believing it was Norman’s infirm old mother, energized by murderous wrath, made it profoundly more disturbing. And then, of course, I saw the rest of the movie…but I never figured it out until the end!

And that’s a testament to Psycho’s power: I didn’t even try to figure it out. I was too busy chewing the shit out of my nails. I can’t give it a better review than that. I rate it an Eeenngghh out of AAIGH!

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

This was definitely the most lukewarm of the soups I sipped this month. It’s the story of a young wife who moves into a new apartment and begins to suspect that her elderly neighbours are not as kindly as they seem, and that there is something deeply wrong with the baby growing inside her.

Looking real healthy there, Rosemary. Positively glowing.

It’s a wonderfully evocative premise – Satanism and pregnancy, sounds like grade-A skin-crawlies ahoy, right? Maybe my expectations were too high, but this movie didn’t really scare me at all. The best thing I can say about it is that it is consistently, unrelentingly creepy. Not even suspenseful creepy, just the suspiciously-nice-old-couple-across-the-hall creepy. I guess that’s the scariest part: much like Psycho, it hits too close to home. Everything that happens is way too possible for me to feel comfortable with it. The other thing I’ll say in this film’s favour is its stand-out performance from Mia Farrow, who I’d never seen in anything before – she is perfectly sympathetic as the waifish, gentle, quietly intelligent Rosemary. I became very fond of her very quickly, and as such felt anger at the way she is mistreated over the course of the movie. She does a great job of playing the new wife who is deeply in love with her young husband, and must face the possibility that he is not to be trusted. And her horror as she begins to understand how far the conspiracy against her really goes is palpably real.

All in all though, I’d only recommend this one if you’re into older movies (which, thankfully, I am). It hasn’t aged very well, but you can see how it would have been pretty effed at the time. I rate it a Demon Baby out of Ten.

The Thing (1982)

Truthfully I couldn’t wait to watch this movie. Learned as I am in such 80s sci-fi classics as Alien, Predator, and the like, not having seen The Thing yet was a pretty glaring void in my resume. I rectified that oversight hard.

The Thing is totally awesome. It’s true to 80s sci-fi style in its refusal to waste time on silly things like character development or sentimental reflection. We are brusquely introduced to a stable of stock characters, who react with the same confusion we do as a helicopter frantically chases a lone dog into their Antarctic research facility. A gunman gets out, speaking in desperate Norwegian. He brandishes his rifle – he seems to think it’s very important that the dog dies. He fires wildly, a team member is hit, and he is shot down and killed. The dog licks a dude’s face affectionately. The fate of these men is sealed.

Always listen to the Norwegian, dammit!

That kind of bare-bones storytelling really works when you’re dealing with such a simple premise: something terrifying has taken hold of the facility. It kills organisms and assumes their shapes to hide amongst them. Nothing more needs to be understood – the only question is, how do they stop it before they all die?

It’s a study in distrust. Twelve men locked in a gloomy facility surrounded by endless frozen wastes, none of them sure if the man next to him is, in fact, really the man next to him. Tempers are high, fear is rampant, and their numbers dwindle rapidly with each horrific attack. A Jamie Oliver/Stephen King tag team would have a tough time coming up with a better recipe for horror.

The Thing is full of fine performances, especially a pre-Diabeetus turn from Wilford Brimley, whose character proves to be less than adept at handling the stress of an unknown life form systematically fucking his friends up royal.

YOU GOT A PURTY MOUTH

My award for Best Performance, though, is a no brainer – Kurt Russell’s whiskey-swillin’, wood-choppin’, baby-makin’ beard takes it home. You could keep a starving Siberian family warm and cozy in that thing. I bet it smells like Honduran cigars and polished oak.

He's a lumberjack and he's Fuckin' A

But The Thing is not reliant on the strength of its script or actors – although these deliver in taut, tense spades. It’s its technical prowess that brings all the Things to the yard. In grand old-timey horror tradition, there are little to no computer generated effects at all – the hideously malformed incarnations of the Thing that we see as it assimilates its victims or tries to escape are represented by a suite of sophisticated and incredibly concinving animatronics. The revulsion you’ll feel when you see it is the kind of pale, sweaty, gut-churning disgust that only comes when you actually see a dog, its head split four ways and replaced by a glistening sucker-tipped protuberance that spits corrosive phlegm, with gibbering tentacles and hairy armoured insectoid legs erupting from its quivering flesh as it screams and writhes on the floor.

What? I see that kind of thing all the time.

Anyway. With tight and deliberate direction from John Carpenter, a dread-filled synth score from perennial badass Ennio Morricone, an awesome beard from Kurt Russell, truly disgusting special effects, and an unexpectedly bold ending, The Thing should be a staple in every home. I rate it a Holy Shit out of Oh Jesus.

The Exorcist (1973)

Well, we’ve finally come to the conclusion of our sordid story. This was the movie I selected as the scariest of the month. The strength of the entire Ex-Spook-Aganza rested on little Linda Blair. Would she measure up? Would this movie scare me as much as it did my poor father, who said the walk home alone at night from the theatre was one of the worst of his life?

Simply put: yes. The Exorcist is scary as shit, even by today’s jaded standard. I’d never seen it before and was expecting its scares to be dated at best, and it’s never good to go into something with expectations set so high through hype and acclaim that it could be a gateway to Nirvana and you’d still be skeptical. But you know what, maybe I was just in the right mindset, because I found The Exorcist to be profoundly frightening.

I guess it’s best looked at as a cerebral experience nowadays, because much of the film’s screentime is spent in development and setup. The actual exorcism scene runs for 9 minutes, and is essentially the last part of the movie. But its impact would be lessened dramatically if it was constructed in even a slightly different way. We only care about the success of the ritual because we know what’s at stake for the priests, and more importantly, we just want gentle little Reagan to get better.

Would you wish harm on such a nice little girl? Wait don't answer that

It’s a movie about perversion; about the desecration of what is sacred and the defilement of what is pure. Linda Blair makes such a sweet and endearingly innocent Reagan, and it’s therefore much more painful to see her grotesquely deformed, saying and doing things no girl would, in the sway of an evil so uncaring that it invades a beautiful child just to appear that much more upsetting to everyone else. The Exorcist is not only full of horror, it’s full of sadness too.

The two things that clutched my heart with an icy fist were the repeated, almost subliminal flashes of a monstrous leering face, and Max Von Sydow’s performance as the titular expert in exorcism. One unsettled and frightened me when I wasn’t prepared, and the other made me weak with despair even when I was. It’s funny, too, he’s got like no screentime. He’s at the beginning and the end, like a set of tall dreary Swedish bookends.

And you know, all the oft-discussed scenes like the swiveling head and the hovering above the sheets lived up to their infamy, but the crab-walk down the stairs is the one that shook me the most. It happens in the middle of a perfectly calm dialogue scene, where Reagan’s mother is literally interrupted mid-sentence by her daughter careening down the stairs upside down and backwards, shrieking and moaning. It would be disturbing enough, but everything I’d heard and read about it never mentioned the blood pouring freely from her extended throat and out her gaping mouth. That scene alone took it right to 11 and kept it there.

All in all it was a suitable finale to my freaky fun, with all its elements rounding out to a perfectly pertifying final product. I rate it a NOOOOO out of Oh Sweet Dear God Why.

And that’s all, folks! What have we learned? Well I, for one, am convinced of my brain’s ability to find even the most dated of spooks to be potent and enjoyable. I had a hell of a lot of fun, and there’s enough stringy meat left on these shambling bones for many more October Ex-Spook-Aganzas to come. Maybe next time we’ll update with a few more recent horror movies, and it would be a damn shame if we didn’t pop a zombie flick or two in there as well.

Who knows? Maybe December will bring a seasonal moviethon of its own…

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2 Responses to “All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2011”

  1. Your Father November 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    The sad truth is, not only was the walk home from The Exorcist one the longest of my life, it was in broad daylight. I had skipped school to see the matinee with a couple of friends. That movie has to be one of the most frightening of all time. It says something that a movie can stand the test of time, and hold its own against today’s special effects trickery. Gee, I’m sorry I missed watching with you this time around. 😉

    Great reviews, Son.

    Love, Dad.

  2. Meagan Healey November 9, 2011 at 12:01 am #

    Fuck you’re a good writer. I mean, seriously. I knew I wasn’t going to watch any of these, or very few, because I’m a wuss, but now I kind of want to!

    I miss you JC!

    Also, your dad’s comment might be the best part of the whole thing.

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