A random series of Halloween movie posts: Insidious, Grave Encounters

Finding new horror movies that I will enjoy isn’t always as easy as I’d like, because I’m kind of picky about it. I like the classic slashers–your Halloweens, your Screams and occasionally, if nothing better comes along, your Friday the 13ths–but for the most part I prefer hauntings to stabbings. I tolerate gore pretty well if I’m otherwise interested in the movie, but I don’t get much of a kick out of it, so if something looks like a straight-up gorefest I’m likely to pass it by. Torture porn usually leaves me an unpleasant mix of uncomfortable and bored. Sexual violence isn’t a trigger or a strict deal-breaker, but I feel like I’ve seen so much cinematic rape at this point that unless a movie offers something else to make it worth my while, I end up in the uncomfortable-yet-bored place again. I like ghosts and old creepy houses and suspense, but the jackpot, ghosts-and-creepiness movies that actually, really scare me, seem all too rare sometimes.

So when I find them, I get pretty excited. That’s what tonight’s subjects are–recently made and recently watched movies that gave me some genuine scares along with an enjoyable viewing experience. BONUS: they are both available on Netflix Instant, or at least were at the time of this writing.


Insidious is my new favorite horror movie. It is practically everything I want in a horror movie and almost nothing I don’t want (I could do with fewer Shrieky Violin moments on the soundtrack, because I feel like Shrieky Violins on horror soundtracks are often used as a crutch–it’s not hard to make ANYTHING seem scary when you accompany it with that sound, and I end up wishing they would stop torturing that poor violin and let the scares stand or fall on their own /Shrieky Violin rant). Insidious is about a family (parents played wonderfully by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) who start experiencing a haunting at around the same time that their oldest son falls into a coma. Rose Byrne gets sufficiently freaked out that she convinces Patrick Wilson that they need to move–and the haunting follows them to their new house.

That right there is enough for me to like it. They accept that freaky shit happening! The husband chooses to believe a haunting is possible rather than believe his wife is crazy! THEY MOVE OUT OF THE HOUSE!…And it doesn’t work.

Insidious offers a good blend of classic horror moments–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it–and inventiveness that makes it stand out from other haunting movies. It has neat cinematography and some excellent scares. And it has Lin Shaye (an actress I didn’t really know before watching it and now I want to watch everything she’s ever been in because of how much I love her in this) as Elise Rainier. Forget Tangina–if I ever find out my house is haunted, I want Elise on the job.

I believe there’s supposed to be a sequel coming out in 2013, which is good because THE ENDING. I’m not going to say anymore than that, but jeeeeez, the ending.

Grave Encounters

Okay, so–I watch a fair amount of horror movies. I tend to watch them alone in my apartment at night. I get a little wigged out, I jump at the “Gotcha!” moments, I double-check that my front and back doors are both securely locked before going to sleep. Usually, that’s about how scared I get. Usually, the only reason I won’t finish one on the first viewing is because it doesn’t hold my interest.

Grave Encounters freaked me out so much that I paused it about two-thirds of the way through so that I could finish watching it in broad daylight the next morning.

It’s a found-footage movie, but don’t let that prejudice you against it. The cast of a Ghosthunters-type show, who of course have never seen real evidence of the supernatural and are all jaded, set out to do an episode in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, which is of course actually haunted. Badness ensues. But not at first–they spend the night in the hospital, and there’s some creepy foreshadowing but nothing much. And then they get ready to leave. And then something happens, which I will not spoil for you, but was the reason I spent the rest of the movie with my heart pounding and eventually decided I needed to take a break if I wanted to sleep that night.

It’s hard to convey why I got so freaked out without just saying what it is, and I wish I could, because it’s something I think may not be super-scary to everyone but is PURE, UNADULTERATED NIGHTMARE FUEL for me. It has to do with feeling like the rug has been yanked right out from under your feet, that nothing makes sense anymore and you don’t have a chance because everything you think you know about how to survive in a haunted house will do you no good here. It has very little to do with the scary-face ghost girl in the trailer, but she doesn’t hurt.

I both want more horror movies like Grave Encounters, and don’t want them, ever, because I am fond of sleeping without nightmares. Oh, hey, there’s a sequel now…


A random series of Halloween movie posts: Hocus Pocus, Disney’s Halloween Treat

…Okay, so maybe every other day is a more realistic posting schedule. ANYWAY. After The Exorcist, I feel like we could use something a little lighter! Like a movie about witches who suck the life force out of children, and a Halloween special with several parts I found legitimately terrifying as a child. Yaaaaaaaaaay!

Hocus Pocus

First of all, this is an excellent article about Hocus Pocus and you should go read it.

Hocus Pocus is one of those movies from my generation’s childhood that we’ve gleefully gone on loving right into adulthood. We’re a nostalgic bunch–probably every generation is to at least some extent, but mine also came of age on the Internet, and the Internet is great for bringing back stuff from your childhood so that you can yell about how much you love it on Tumblr. And Hocus Pocus is, I think, a viewing experience that ages well. Watching it as an adult, you get the nostalgia value from the parts of the movie that are aimed at younger viewers, but you also get the moments of adult humor that were kind of weird and off-putting when you were a kid, as well as the ones that went completely over your head (Hocus Pocus is the only kids’ movie I can think of that references a musical about a burlesque dancer. If you know of another one, please share). You’re more aware of the gleeful, unapologetic anachronisms–the witches are baffled by a paved street and have to step on it to realize it’s solid! But they can put on a show-stopping musical number two minutes after walking into a nightclub!–but those just seem like part of the fun. Or maybe you write a pedantic post somewhere about all the inaccuracies, in which case I guess it’s still part of the fun, but your idea of fun is somewhat different than mine. BUT ANYWAY. And as you watch, you realize that adults getting a kick out of Hocus Pocus is nothing new, because Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi are all clearly having more fun than should be legal playing these characters who are genuinely evil and dangerous, but also silly and funny and kind of fabulous.

Also, if this movie didn’t make you want an immortal talking cat as a pet, you’re wrong. Sorry.

Disney’s Halloween Treat

There were apparently several different Disney Halloween specials that used similar clips, and looking around on Youtube recently, I couldn’t find any version that lines up exactly with the taped-from-TV VHS of my memory (the one I remember did have the Magic Mirror and didn’t have the talking jack-o-lantern, although it did have a great deal of the talking jack-o-lantern’s narration). Still, watching some of the familiar clips makes for a great nostalgia fest. One of my favorites as a kid–and also, of course, the one that scared me the most–was the Old Mill. I also loved the cat stuff (some of which I only recently realized was part of a longer Disney thing about cats), and the Donald Duck cartoon with Witch Hazel, which I now regard as a sort of G-rated Trick’R’Treat (you better not be stingy, or your nightmares will come true). And while I may not be able to hunt down my version on Youtube and our VHS may not exist anymore, Disney’s Halloween treat will always hold a special place in my heart for being one of my first Halloween traditions. Looking back, it laid a lot of the seeds of my love for the holiday.

A random series of Halloween movie posts: The Exorcist

Trying to get this in under the wire so that at least I’ve only missed one day in my “post every day up to Halloween” plan. Just one tonight, because it’s one I have a LOT to say about.

The Exorcist

Even before I decided to write about horror movies in October, writing something about The Exorcist was on my mind, because I rewatched it a few months ago. For the second time.

Yep, I’m a horror movie fan who’s only watched The Exorcist all the way through twice (and still haven’t seen the version with the spider walk. I’m working up to it). This is not because I don’t think it’s a good horror movie, but rather, because it’s such a great one–my first viewing gave me the most profound scare of any horror movie ever. And while if I’d ever really made an effort to screw my courage to the sticking place and watch it again, I probably could have, I just didn’t until a few months ago.

So, the first viewing: I was thirteen, sleeping over at a friend’s house. I knew it was a movie my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to watch at thirteen, and I had already made up my mind that when she picked me up the next morning and asked me what we did last night, I wasn’t going to tell her about it. That just made the idea of watching it seem even more exciting and dangerous (yes, watching R-rated movies and then lying by omission to my mother about them was one of my most common forms of adolescent rebellion).

So we watched The Exorcist. And it was super creepy and had some pretty disturbing scenes (the crucifix scene in particular being a special kind of traumatic for a sheltered thirteen-year-old), but at the time, I found the viewing experience…almost a little underwhelming. I mean, this was THE EXORCIST. It was supposed to be the scariest movie of all time. I’d expected to end up huddled in a corner unable to look, and aside from a few moments where I flinched, I found I could look at it just fine.

And then we went to bed, and I found out I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes and try to go to sleep. If I closed my eyes, Pazuzu would show up and possess me (how, exactly, keeping my eyes open was supposed to STOP Pazuzu from showing up to possess me, I was not clear on, but I still felt a little better as long as I could keep an eye on the door and the windows and the corners of the room). I stayed awake until it started to get light outside, and then snatched a couple of hours’ sleep. And then I went home, and I don’t remember having trouble sleeping the next night, and outwardly, at least, things pretty much went back to normal.

But the movie was still with me, and at idle moments it would seep into my mind and start freaking me out all over again. At this point I should probably mention that I was raised Catholic, and at thirteen I was just starting to question my religious upbringing. The Exorcist hit me all the harder because of that, and I don’t think it would have been quite such an experience if I’d seen it at any other time in my life. It’s still the only movie that I can point to as having put me in a genuine moral and spiritual panic. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just asking myself “Is God really real?”, I was asking myself “What if God and the devil are BOTH really real and someday the devil comes for me and God won’t help me because he knows I’ve questioned his existence?”. Pretty heady stuff for an eighth-grader. For a while, I threw myself back into Catholicism and basically tried to will myself into being more pious, but it didn’t quite fit anymore. Eventually I would reach the conclusion that fear of punishment makes a really crappy foundation for faith, be really angrily about religion for a few years, and then finally get over being really angry and settle into my current comfortable agnosticism. So The Exorcist ended up being a pretty big piece of my personal spiritual journey, and now I’m grateful for it. Back when I was a teenager in legitimate fear for her soul? Not so grateful.

I was also haunted by the fact that Reagan was so innocent. I’ve been trying and failing to come up with specific examples and my memory may not be trustworthy, but pre-Exorcist, my experience with horror films and ghost stories and other spooky stuff mostly seemed to involve SOME sense of causation–the ghosts weren’t at peace because they’d been murdered or something sacred had been stolen, or the protagonist brought bad things down on themselves by spending the night in the haunted house or reading from the cursed book or having sex at summer camp. Reagan was a little girl, and she’d done nothing. Well, okay, she played with a Ouija board. But for all the spookiness that pop culture had invested them with, Ouija boards were sold by Mattel and thus not, to my thirteen-year-old mind, serious business. When they did feature in my horror experience, it was usually in connection with other stuff that was Definitely Bad (an X-Files episode where there’s underage drinking AND sex AND a Ouija board AND girls playing “Bloody Mary” in a bathroom comes to mind). Reagan’s use of the Oujia board was as innocent and harmless as she was, and she’d done nothing else that seemed remotely wrong. And yet she wasn’t safe. And if Reagan wasn’t safe, no one was safe. I wasn’t safe.

It seems painfully obvious now, and my past self seems painfully naive. Of course being innocent doesn’t give you some magical protection against harm (any more than underage drinking and having sex means you deserve it), and all you need to do to know that is watch the news. But that’s part of what horror movies are for, isn’t it? To take the dark truths, the hard lessons we may not be ready for but have to learn sometime, and wrap them in fiction so that they’re easy to swallow.

So there was that. And then there was over a decade wherein I was not really too scared to rewatch The Exorcist, not precisely, it’s just that I felt like I should prepare myself and be in the right frame of mind to watch it again and I just never got around to it and anyway there were all these other movies out there in the world to watch so maybe I’ll just watch one of those, hmm? Until this summer, when I found myself really wanting to watch a good horror movie, and found out that The Exorcist was available on Netflix Instant, and decided the time had come.

How did it hold up? Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t quite the boogeyman I’d built it up to be through more than a decade of avoidance, but it’s still scary. I’m definitely more able to appreciate it as a movie now–the score, the cinematography, the performances. It’s probably going to remain a movie I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch, but that seems like the way it should be. In short, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still definitely deserving of the title of scariest movie of all time. And it may have taken me a while to get there, but I’m glad it’s one I’ve seen.

A random series of Halloween movie posts: The Haunting (1963), Pet Semetary

As I said last time, it’s October, so I want to talk about some horror movies.
I spent some time trying to come up with some kind of structure or overarching theme for the movies I want to write about, and realized I don’t have one. It’s just that these are some movies I a) enjoy a lot and b) have things to say about that are a little more in-depth than “I like them”. My goal is to post once a day between now and Halloween, possibly with one, possibly with more.

Tonight we have a double-header of two of the first that came to mind: The Haunting (1963 original) and Pet Semetary.

The Haunting

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw The Haunting. I’m pretty sure I was in high school, because I already knew it and loved it when I was in college, but it can’t have been too early in high school because the dreadful remake came out in 1999 and I started high school in the fall of ’99 and there was a buffer period in there where I had heard of the remake but had no idea there was an original (I remember seeing the trailer for the remake and being fascinated, but I never got around to seeing it, and having watched it as adult I can safely say I dodged a bullet there). So let’s say it was junior or senior year.

Whenever it was I first saw it, it was a revelation. I was already the kind of horror movie fan that prefers spookiness and suspense to blood and gore, but after The Haunting, I was done for. You can keep your knife-wielding maniacs and your grotesque monsters, your slick CGI ghosts and even your creepy clowns–for my money, I’ll take Eleanor and Theodora in a room at Hill House, clutching at each other while some unseen force pounds on the door and tries to get in (a scene that always makes my heart beat faster no matter how many times I’ve seen it). I’ll take Nell thinking she’s gripping Theo’s hand in the dark, only to realize Theo was across the room the whole time. I’m always terrified and enthralled by stories about haunted places where the real haunting, the real danger, comes not from any being or event but from the place itself–I love House of Leaves, I love Stephen King’s short story 1408 (I was underwhelmed by the film adaptation of 1408, but I expected to be, because the story is such a doozy). With the number of times I’ve watched The Haunting now (…it’s a lot), Hill House is practically an old friend, and yet it still scares me more than a lot of things have scared me. That’s why I keep going back.

And why should I resist going back when I have such entertaining company to do it in? Dr. Markway, who for all his handsome-professor charm and ability to hold court on the subject of the supernatural (or the preternatural) is no match for Hill House. Shallow, hapless Luke, who in a different kind of horror movie might be the first to die, but who lives and learns just how bad an idea it is to mess with Hill House. Beautiful, wonderful, cruel Theodora. And Eleanor–poor Nelly-my-Nell, who I can’t help but root for in spite of her flaws and how plainly doomed she is even on a first viewing. Terrified of the house and yet drawn to it, disturbed that it knows her name and yet longing to belong somewhere, to something or someone, and if Hill House will have her, well, who is she to resist it?

I know I can’t resist it–I’ll keep going back to Hill House, because it’s the perfect place to spend a spooky October evening. Just remember that no one will come if you need help, in the night, in the dark.

Pet Semetary

I was going to open this one by pondering what it is about Pet Semetary that makes me love it so much, but in thinking through the rest of what I had to say about it, I realized that’s a dumb question because I know exactly what I love about Pet Semetary. Certainly there are reasons not to love it–it’s corny in some moments and painfully overwrought at others, and the protagonist is such an idiot (STOP MESSING WITH THE FORCES OF LIFE AND DEATH, LOUIS, IT IS REALLY OBVIOUSLY NOT WORKING OUT) I can’t garner much sympathy for him, I’m just sorry he had to drag his wife and kids into his stupidity. Even the best character in the movie, Fred Gwynne as Judd (I love him so much, it’s like if Frankenstein’s Monster was your folksy grandpa) gets in on the painful stupidity act, showing Louis the magic burial ground and THEN telling him about how everyone/thing you bury there comes back all icky and wrong.

And yet. And yet I keep coming back to Pet Semetary, so many times that I finally bought it on DVD. It’s partly my affection for Judd (in spite of his terrible advice-giving) and for Stephen King’s Maine, the setting for so many of his stories that I’ve read and loved (even dour Missy Dandridge always gets a smile from me in her brief time onscreen, because she’s such a Stephen-King-Maine character. It’s partly that I can’t resist a movie that has both an evil undead cat AND an evil undead toddler. But in my most recent viewing, I realized what really keeps me coming back–it’s that under all the corniness and the magic burying grounds and the scalpel-wielding undead toddlers, Pet Semetary taps into some stuff that’s very real, and really scary. What’s more terrible than a murderous undead toddler? A tiny bloodstained shoe rolling and bouncing down the road. A tiny coffin with its lid knocked open during a family brawl (sidebar: how much of an asshole do you have to be to pick a fight with your son-in-law DURING your grandson’s funeral)? When Gage finally makes his scalpel-wielding, bloodthirsty appearance, it’s good creepy fun, but we’ve already been exposed to the real horror.

And then there’s Zelda, probably the single most terrifying thing in the whole movie. And yes, her appearance and voice seem calculated to be AS TERRIFYING AS POSSIBLE, but as with Gage, there’s a deeper horror here, and it’s that there’s nothing at all supernatural about Zelda’s terrifyingness. She’s not a ghost or a ghoul or a monster–she’s just a woman who was so ravaged by a terrible disease that her sister was terrified of her and relieved when she died. I have a feeling Rachel wouldn’t need Judd to tell her that sometimes dead is better. I think she’s known that since she was a child.

So that’s Pet Semetary: a hefty dose of some of life’s real horrors wrapped up in creepy, corny shenanigans, with a protagonist you end up wanting to get it, an undead cat, and a dash of folksy wisdom delivered by Herman Munster. And really, what more than that do you need to love a horror movie?

We can live like Jack and Sally if we want.


It’s the second week of October, which means we’re well into my favorite time of year. Possibly my favorite part of having a September birthday is that it feels like my birthday kicks off the fall/winter holiday season. My favorite holidays, quite a few of my favorite foods, and my favorite weather (I know fall and winter are really bad season for some people, and I sympathize, but living in the Deep South, I love them) all happen in the last quarter of the year, and I spend the rest of the year waiting not-so-patiently for it.

I’m not sure what I’m doing for Halloween this year, since it’s a Wednesday and I’m on the night shift. Ten at night isn’t too late to go out when you don’t have to get up early the next morning, but I am an old lady at 27 and might just make this a “night in with movies” year. I have some costume ideas, though, and if I have a costume, I’ll want to wear it somewhere. We’ll see!

In the meantime, I’m restraining myself from buying every decoration I see, baking pumpkin muffins, and watching lots of good Halloweeny movies, not that that last part isn’t something I do all the time. I’m contemplating doing a couple of posts talking about some of my favorite movies to watch this time of year, so stay tuned for that!