Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Monster Hunting: Some Recent Movies Worth Watching This Halloween

The spooky season is once again upon us—my favorite time of year—so I thought I’d share a few horror-movie recommendations.  Despite my curmudgeonly assertion this past spring that I don’t enjoy movies anymore, each suggestion below gives lie to that.

In compiling this selection, I tried to choose A) relatively recent movies, from the last few years, that B) you’ve likely never heard of, hence the reason worthy entries like Get Out, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Conjuring, and The Witch didn’t make the cut.

What all of the following lacked in budget they more than compensate for in creativity; they remind me of what I found so exciting about filmmaking in my youth, before corporations controlled all of our popular entertainments, and Hollywood was ushered into our ignominious Era of the Endless Reboot.

As always, I’ve included each movie’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

It Follows (2014)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)

This one you may have already heard of (it isn’t quite as obscure as some of the titles to come), but I had to include it for the simple reason that it’s the most terrifying horror film I’ve seen since I was a kid.

After a one-night stand, a college student finds herself afflicted with the mother of all STDs:  an invincible supernatural entity (which can shapeshift to appear as anyone:  an old woman, a middle-aged man, etc.) that follows her ploddingly but relentlessly—night and day, wherever she goes, however far she runs—and will kill her upon catching her.  The only way to rid herself of the demonic fiend?  Pass on the “curse” by sleeping with another person!  Of course, if the wraith kills that unlucky fool, it reverses course to work its way back up the vectorial chain—meaning there’s no way to permanently outrun the malignant spirit pursuing you!

Just like an STD, It Follows leaves a stinging sensation you just can’t seem to shake once exposed.  (I’m actually looking over my shoulder as I type this at 12:45 in the afternoon.)

 

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Domestic Monster”)

In a Detroit ghetto during the middle of the night, three young thieves break into the home of a blind Special Forces veteran sitting on $300,000 in cash—settlement money from his daughter’s death in a car accident—figuring it’ll be an easy, in-and-out score.  But the vet proves more formidable then they’d anticipated, and a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the darkened nooks and crannies of the house—which the blind man navigates with considerably greater ease than the burglars!

Don’t Breathe is a nail-biting thriller that pulls off a feat I’ve never seen in any other movie:  an entire set-piece in which all the characters grope blindly through a pitch-black basement, devoid of any light whatsoever.  How does the director keep his characters in the dark without doing the same to his audience?  You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

 

The Boy (2016)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Nihilist Monster”)

Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) plays an American woman who flees her abusive ex-boyfriend by taking a nannying job on a gloomy estate in the British countryside.  The rub?  The parents are an elderly couple—huh?—and their eight-year-old “son,” Brahms, is a life-sized porcelain doll who they seem to wholeheartedly believe is a real boy.  Cohan goes along with the charade; it seems benign enough, after all.  But when they leave her alone to care for Brahms while away on a trip, along with a list of inviolable rules she promptly ignores (‘cause what’s the point in catering to an inanimate object?), she learns from a local grocer that the real Brahms died in a fire on the property over twenty years earlier, and soon comes to suspect the dead boy’s spirit has possessed the doll, which has an unnerving habit of appearing in places other than where she last left it.

Every time I thought I knew where the plot was going, it took an unexpected turn.  This film will give you a skin-crawling case of the willies—on a PG-13 rating, no less!  As far as creepy-doll movies go, The Boy is a far more effective and satisfying chiller overall than Annabelle (2014), which got a much wider audience on account of its position in The Conjuring franchise; watch this one instead.

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

Here’s an example of a popular literary genre that is woefully underrepresented cinematically:  the “weird Western.”  In the 1890s, a one-horse town is terrorized by a clan of cannibalistic savages that dwells in caves along the outskirts, and the sheriff (Kurt Russell) assembles a posse (Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox) to rescue a small group of locals that have been kidnapped by the barbarous troglodytes.  Bone Tomahawk had about one percent of the budget afforded to the recent Magnificent Seven remake ($1.8 million versus $107 million per Wikipedia), but it also has the characterization, tension, and originality all of Mag7’s money couldn’t buy.  It also has the great Kurt Russell!

As big a movie star as Russell has been for the past forty years, one can’t help but wonder if he would’ve been bigger still in the heyday of the Hollywood Western:  Some of his best work, including Bone Tomahawk, Tombstone (a classic that only improves with age), and The Hateful Eight (which, admittedly, is more interesting than it is good), have been Westerns, and many of the genre-bending films he made with John CarpenterEscape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from L.A.—are merely Westerns in disguise (you can see shades of Clint Eastwood in Snake Plissken, and his performance in Big Trouble owes a huge debt to John Wayne).  Russell has always had a great eye for material that transcends its B-movie ambitions and budgetary limitations, and his presence—he’s one of our great, underrated leading men—elevates every project to which he contributes; Bone Tomahawk is simply the latest in his reliable oeuvre.

 

Southbound (2015)

A horror anthology (hence the exclusion of a Save the Cat! genre classification) perfectly summarized by its preexisting logline on Rotten Tomatoes:  “On a desolate stretch of desert highway, weary travelers—two men on the run from their past, a band on their way to the next gig, a man struggling to get home, a brother in search of his long-lost sister, and a family on vacation—are forced to confront their worst fears and darkest secrets in these interwoven tales of terror and remorse on the open road.”

Several filmmakers contributed to Southbound, but the overall result is cohesive and creative—and there is a narrative through-line that runs through all the vignettes.  And when the story comes full circle at the climax, you’ll feel compelled to watch the movie again to better appreciate the meticulous method at work behind its patchwork madness.

 

Spring (2014)

Genre:  Buddy Love (“Forbidden Love”)

A young American man, grieving the recent loss of his mother, takes off for the Italian coast to escape his troubles, and soon falls in love with an enigmatic woman harboring a monstrous secret.  To say any more about the story would be to spoil the surprises in store.

Structurally, Spring bears much in common with its subgenre brethren Twilight (also “Forbidden Love”), but this supernatural love story is handled with the maturity, thematic depth, and emotional complexity so lacking in Edward and Bella’s juvenile romance; Spring understands the painful truth Twilight could never—over five movies!—find the courage to confront:  that true love requires sacrifice.

 

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Genre:  Institutionalized (“Family Institution”)

If Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest directed an adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, it would surely look like this comedy about a coven of centuries-old vampires in Wellington grappling with the complexities of modern existence.

In our reality-TV culture, the mockumentary format has grown tiresome and subject to misuse by filmmakers that don’t understand its very particular “rules” (here’s looking at you, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family), but Shadows is a truly clever sendup of the conventions of both the docucomedy and Gothic horror.  It’s mostly just funny—gut-bustingly so—but manages to spring a few scares, too.

 

The Love Witch (2016)

Genre:  Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”)

Once in a generation a movie like this comes along—one with a look and feel like no other.  Elaine is a present-day witch, simply looking for love, who casts a literal spell over every man she meets, one so effective it leaves a trail of broken hearts—and dead bodies, natch—everywhere she goes.  Director Anna Biller’s glorious Technicolor tribute to sixties genre cinema—from Hitchcock to Hammer to sexploitation schlock—is about the irreconcilable expectations men and women bring to romantic relationships.

The last movie I saw this aesthetically unique was Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula—another “Fantasy Superhero” entry that invoked the cinematic stylistics of a bygone era—exactly a quarter century ago.  This is hands-down one of my favorite films of the last decade, easily, but fair warning:  It is not for all tastes.  It’s weird and it’s wonderful—as thought-provoking as it is visually arresting.


Here’s hoping one or more of the above help make your Halloween a happy one!  If you take the time to watch any of these movies, be sure to come on back and let me know what you thought of them.  Pleasant nightmares!

22 Comments

  1. I can’t say no some good old horror flicks so you can be sure I’m going to give these a look-see. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Thanks, Nthato! I’m all for revisiting classics at Halloween — I keep many old favorites on standby this time of year (Halloween, Scream, Sleepy Hollow, etc.) — but after repeated annual viewings, those movies become more comforting than scary, so it’s nice to mix in some new selections, too, and feel a little frightened once again. As the late horror maestro Wes Craven once said, scary movies sometimes should stick “to you in a way that maybe you don’t like.”

      Be sure to let me know what you thought of these when you have a chance to watch them! Happy Halloween!

  2. I’m going to check some of these movies out. I love a good scary film. I just saw the reboot of It this past weekend. I’m a huge Stephen King fan – a fan of his books. The movie? Not so much. But in fairness to the script, as a writer I no longer can watch or read the same way. My critical editor’s eye is constantly on. More often than not I’m disappointed. Thanks for the movie tips! I know if you like them, those are good movies.

    • I think the challenge is finding a way to turn your “critical editor’s eye” off. It’s something I’ve worked on and am able to enjoy films far more than if I was trying to dissect them, especially upon a first viewing.

      • Jeff and Stacey:

        My mentor David Freeman says that audiences want to be manipulated — that’s why we submit to a movie or book in the first place, after all — they just don’t want to see the strings being pulled; they want an emotional experience — they’re willing to be manipulated — they simply don’t want to sense manipulation at work. I would say that if you find yourself engaging your analytics on first viewing, it’s probably indicative of a problem with the story itself: Something about it didn’t fully absorb you into the narrative experience.

        I love nothing more than shutting down the left hemisphere of my brain and simply surrendering to a piece of fiction, and that’s why I appreciate novels and movies that grant me that blessed respite from the tyranny of analysis. Those kinds of movies let me be a pure fan again, like I was as a kid; I’ll study them later, sure, but on the first go-round, I just get to enjoy. Which is why I figured, given all my complaining about the culture of Hollywood over the last year or so, I’d take this opportunity to celebrate a handful of movies that pleasantly surprised this jaded old dog! Horror in particular is great for that, because if you’re scared, terror chases any other thoughts out of your brain save the most primal ones. Let’s see if some of these selections surprise — and terrorize — you, too!

        Sean

    • Stacey:

      You know, King himself once said: “Books and movies are apples and oranges: They’re both delicious, but they don’t taste the same at all.” That said, even great movie adaptations — in my estimation — seldom improve on their literary source material. (King’s own Misery is a great example, though there are exceptions, like Jaws.)

      It’s funny that so many of King’s books have been adapted cinematically, because — aside from their movie-ready central concepts — most of them are so literary in their narrative form and ambition. (Case in point: Misery, which is an ode to writing itself — a story about how fiction can save us from life’s many miseries.) I haven’t yet seen the new It, but the book is just this massive, brilliant, nonlinear, epic masterpiece of American fiction, and part of what’s so scary about it are the impressions King evokes, rather than the concrete images a director might conjure. The movie may very well be brilliant in its own right (though I hear it only tells half the story, with a second part to come), but I can’t imagine it improving on the narrative experience of the novel, which is not to be missed. It was written as a novel because that’s the form in which the story was intended to be presented. The stories listed above, on the other hand, were conceived as movies, and thusly exploit that form to great effect (like the plunged-into-darkness sequence in Don’t Breathe, or the Technicolor pageantry of The Love Witch).

      And, please — be sure to let me know how you like some of these recommendations! The first five are more traditional fright flicks — they are true Monster in the House yarns — whereas the last three on the list borrow elements of the supernatural without necessarily being scary (like Twilight or Interview with the Vampire); I guess you could say they’re more “dark fantasy” than horror. But still worth your time.

      Thanks, Stacey!

  3. Very interesting! I can’t say I agree about It Follows, though. I wasn’t a big fan. Bone Tomahawk has been on my radar for a while now. Here are some of my recommendations:

    The Babadook – Reminded me why I don’t want children. How is this not on your list?!

    Trick ‘r Treat – The ultimate Halloween movie

    Dead Snow 1 & 2 – Solid zombie goodness that many people haven’t seen

    The Descent – The best all-female horror film. You’ll never go spelunking again.

    Evil Dead (2014) – Visceral splatterfest that does the origin films justice

    Midnight Meat Train – I can’t let the season go by without visiting Clive Barker

    • Love your list too. Trick ‘r Treat is my Halloween “Love Actually.” I must watch it every year. And The Descent is scary as hell.

    • Ya know, It Follows just scared the stuffing out of me (even more than The Conjuring); it left me sheened in cold sweat! I will concede that the ending isn’t amazing; the movie suffers from a problem that bedevils a lot of otherwise stellar “Supra-natural Monster” movies (meaning those with noncorporeal malefactors, like the original Nightmare on Elm Street) in that the villain is so frighteningly unstoppable even the storytellers themselves didn’t quite know how to satisfactorily resolve the main conflict. (Authors like King and Koontz have occasionally fallen victim to this, as well.) My feeling on that matter, though, is that if I enjoyed it up till the end — if you scared me witless throughout — I can overlook a weak conclusion.

      As for your response to It Follows, to each his own, I say. Case in point: The Boy has a dismal 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I found it to be a solid little chiller from start to finish — certainly heaps better than Annabelle, which had a few effective scares/set pieces (particularly that sequence in the elevator), but overall was very forgettable and clichéd. If The Boy happens to stand the test of time, I could see it being a minor classic in twenty years. I think the thirteen-year-old set in particular would dig it, because it’s creepy as hell without being sexual or gory in nature (it’s only rated PG-13, which I didn’t even realize till after I’d slipped the disc back in its Netflix envelope), so it might make for a good choice at a kiddie Halloween party?

      And thanks so much for contributing your own suggestions, all of which are excellent and worth seeing. (I might even suggest you develop that list into a blog post of your own.) A lot of the movies both of us have recommended here are definitely not particularly well-known outside the hardcore horror fan base, and this is a great time of year to expose yourself to at least one new scary story. As I said to Nthato in my comment above, re-watching our favorite horror films is a little like comfort food: Far from scaring us anymore, there’s actually a sort of coziness about them — like slipping back into a well-loved jacket come autumn. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But horror movies are only doing what they were really meant to do when they scare us shitless — when the stick to us in a way that’s uncomfortable — so we all ought to go out of our way this season to hunt down one good monster we’ve never before confronted! Everyone, after all, is entitled to one good scare on Halloween!

  4. Great list. I’ve seen all but Southbound and Love Witch. I’ll add them to my Halloween movie list.

    • Having a sense of your tastes, Bonita, I think you’d dig Southbound (like Trick ‘r Treat, it’s an anthology film, but with a common plot element that runs throughout the vignettes).

      The Love Witch is utterly bizarre. You know those old B-movies they spoof on MST3K? The ones with stilted dialogue and flat acting? Imagine if someone made exactly that kind of movie — intentionally — and that’s The Love Witch. But you’ve never seen anything quite like it. I’d be very curious to get your take on it…

  5. These sound so good. Sean. I don’t like most “realistic – could happen” horror because it brings out the demon under my bed, but I love suspense and a good monster scare. Thanks for the list – hopefully some of these are on Netflix. Hope you’re doing well and enjoying the start of autumn. 😀

    • I am well, Diana — thank you so kindly for asking — and I’m sorry I’ve been absent on the blogosphere of late. I spent the latter half of the summer finishing my manuscript — to the exclusion of basically everything else in my life — and then got out of town for a family reunion. I’m back in L.A. now, attending to all the unanswered messages, unread blog posts, and unfulfilled household chores I’d spent all of August ignoring! I’ll be resuming my online presence in the coming weeks. I hope you’ve been well, too, and I’m looking forward to finding out what you’ve been up to on Myths of the Mirror!

      You know, “horror” is a pretty broad genre, and all the different types don’t necessarily appeal to all the different tastes. For instance, my wife hates “demonic” horror — stuff like The Exorcist or The Omen or Poltergeist — because it just creeps her out in a way she can’t handle! (I don’t blame her.) I tend to view “real-life” horror — something like Don’t Breathe, without an element of the supernatural or otherworldly — as more “thriller” than “horror.” I grew up on “Serial Monster” movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and, later, Scream, so I have a special affinity for them. Ultimately, though, my favorite subgenre of horror is of the old-school (often Victorian) monster variety: vampires, werewolves, zombies, the Headless Horseman — things that go bump in the night. Those are the kinds of horror stories I respond to, revisit, and write myself. To me, it’s the most accessible kind of horror, because vampires and werewolves can be very scary — they can appeal to a primal childhood fear in all of us — but they can be fun, too, in a way that The Exorcist and Saw and Hannibal can’t (and shouldn’t be, incidentally). For me, as a writer, finding that balance is the joy I take from working in the genre.

      Well, I hope you check out — and enjoy — a few of the above. The Boy is a pretty good creepfest, and it’s only PG-13; it’s more suggestive than gory. Might be the best bet for you off this list.

      Thanks again, Diana. Hope you’re enjoying autumn up in beautiful Oregon! Definitely envious!

      • My WP doesn’t tell me when you reply, so sorry about the late responses. I have to remember to come back and check. You’re right, it’s a huge genre. I can watch the demon horror, and I love vampires, zombies, werewolves, and aliens. But I don’t like sociopath psychos. That’s too real. Ugh. I’ll definitely check some of these out.

        Congrats on finishing your manuscript! First draft or finished finished. Either way that’s a huge milestone. I’m so glad to hear it and excited to read it. Yay!

        • The comments never close here, Diana, so come back the next day or, hell, even the next year and feel free to leave a reply!

          Genre designations like “horror” and “comedy” and “action” each cover a wide swath of stories — too wide, in my estimation — that vary wildly in tone and theme and narrative conventions. (Horror could be “Victorian monster,” “’80s slasher,” “zombie apocalypse,” etc.; comedy could account for the diverse work of Seth Rogen or Tyler Perry or Sandra Bullock or Aziz Ansari; action could mean old-school Sly and Arnold or “buddy cop” or any of the slam-bang comic-book adaptations flooding our cinemas.) That’s why I prefer to use the late Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! narrative classifications — at least as a writing tool. (Anyone interested in learning about those principles in more detail is referred to this post.)

          And thanks for the well-wishes on the manuscript! I just finished the third draft — the polish draft — and it’s out to beta readers at present. I’ll do one more draft based on that feedback, and then we’ll see about finding a home for it. Either way, it’s a fully realized vision now, and it feels great to be done with all the heavy lifting! Writing a novel has been the biggest (and most rewarding) creative challenge of my life. I couldn’t tell you how many screenplays I’ve written over the past two decades — dozens, without question — but writing a script is like writing a song, whereas a novel feels more akin to composing a symphony. (Like I need tell you!) I’ve got several new story ideas I’m excited about developing, I just haven’t had a chance to put pen to paper on any of that as I’m still catching up on all the things I ignored this past summer! It’s remarkable how much of one’s time and energy a book consumes. Still don’t know how you found the spirit to write a four-book series! Are you at work on something new…?

          • Great news on the book. I didn’t realize you were that far along. Sometimes that dedicated push is really needed at the end. It is hugely time consuming! What takes 16 hours to write can be read in 5-10 minutes when you add in all the drafts and edits. Good luck with the last leg of this part of the journey. 🙂

          • Thanks, Diana! I will of course provide updates on the project here on the blog. My hope is to have the next round of revisions completed by January, then take the manuscript out first thing in the New Year and see what kind of interest I can generate. And, of course, as that’s underway, I hope to start outlining — and even writing — several new projects.

  6. Not surprisingly, Sean, it sounds like these are “intelligent horror,” whether that intelligence be in the uniqueness of plot, the cinematography or the wit. I’ll definitely check some of these out and report back!

    • Thanks, Erik! Like I mentioned in one of the comments above, all of these movies impressed me on a very basic level: Each embraced the limitations of its budget and exploited the unique advantages of cinematic storytelling to create something either scary (It Follows), or innovative (Don’t Breathe), or unpredictable (The Boy), or experimental (Southbound), or genre-bending (What We Do in the Shadows), or emotionally resonant (Spring), or far superior to similar big-studio fare (Bone Tomahawk), or like nothing else I’ve ever seen before (The Love Witch). That they’re all horror movies is merely incidental; more importantly, they are all exemplars of good ol’ creative storytelling. Be sure to let me know what you think of them!

      • In doing a little research here, it’s interesting to see that What We Do in the Shadows received the highest ratings on IMDb from among your list, with most falling in the 3- or 3.5-star range. Those ratings scales usually leave me shaking my head, since some of my own favorites run low … and some award winners with high ratings bored me silly. Or, I should say, I understood why they got the awards based on the reasons awards are given, and yet they didn’t appeal to me — much in the same way that I understand why certain models are considered attractive and yet I don’t find them attractive to me personally at all.

        Just curious, because it showed up in my search: What did you think of Let Me In (2010)?

        • You know, horror — particular niche horror (like many of these titles) — doesn’t always tend to score well, because there’s a sizable segment of the viewing public that simply has no interest, for a variety of reasons, in those kinds of films. (Horror movies tend to get their due years after release; the “classics” earn their status by standing the test of time, rather than cleaning up at the Oscars.)

          And, besides which, there’s no denying there’s a gap at present between the feature films people are going to see (Marvel, Fast & Furious) and the ones that are winning awards (Lion, Moonlight). That never used to be the case to the extreme degree we’re witnessing now. Back in the day (he said swaying languidly on his porch rocker), the Oscar winners were also crowd-pleasers, like The Godfather and Rocky and Dances with Wolves and Braveheart; we didn’t have quite the critical and popular chasm that runs through our popular entertainments as it does now. (Chalk that up — to some extent — to “nerd culture” making itself heard; when I was in school, let’s just say you didn’t advertise your love of superheroes and Star Wars! Nowadays, you can’t wait ten feet down the sidewalk without seeing a Batman-branded T-shirt on boys and girls, men and women…)

          So, for me, something like Rotten Tomatoes is certainly a helpful guide, but as I noted in my reply to Jeff, The Boy holds a 27% Tomatometer rating, and I liked it enough to include it with some of these other better-regarded movies. So, I guess if there’s lesson to be taken from nerd culture, it’s this: Don’t let anyone else tell you what’s good. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should be watching. Don’t let anyone else tell you what’s cool. If you like it — if it has meaning to you — that’s the only metric that matters.

          You know, I haven’t seen Let Me In (I just bumped it to the top of my Netflix queue, though.) Many worthy movies (of all genres) slip past my attention; I don’t boast encyclopedic authority of this stuff. Like everyone else, my spare time is limited and I’m always looking for a good recommendation (movies and books), so I appreciate your reminding me of this title. Looks like I’ll be the one reporting back to you soon!

Leave a Reply

© 2017 Sean P Carlin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: