Weird Implications of the Horror Genre

I think most of us would agree that many horror movies are just made to be dumb fun and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  There’s a movie called “Wish Upon” that’s coming out at the end of the week that’s about a magic box that grants people’s wishes.  But there’s a catch.  For every wish the box grants, someone close to the wisher dies!

Yeah…it’s pretty dumb.  But that’s usually the point.  These kind of blockbuster horror movies aren’t really about a story…they’re about spooks and scares and things going “BOO”.

Also gore…there’s a lot of gore these days.

But what if we took these movies more seriously?  It is true that some older horror fiction contained moral lessons or at least satirical observations on modern society.  So what would happen if we took these tales at face value?

Well…

 

Sex is bad

If you’ve never seen the show “Robot Chicken”, all you really need to know is that it’s a skit show involving action figures.  And it’s raunchy…oh so raunchy…

There’s a skit on the show that mashes together “Scooby-Doo” and “Friday the 13th”, with the crew of the Mystery Machine getting brutally murdered one by one by the masked killer Jason Voorhees.  At one point during the skit Velma complains that “the virgin lives the longest in these horror movies”.  And it’s true.  The virgin is the last one alive, particularly in slasher movies.

The excellent 2011 movie “The Cabin in the Woods” references this, stating that for things to work out, the virgin has to be the absolute last one to die, if at all.

But why is this exactly?  How did this become a trope?  Well, as it turns out, horror movies have a weird thing with sex.  Which is that sex is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you’re married.  Which is why in slasher flick movies, the promiscuous cheerleader and the football jock she’s dating are pretty much always the first targets.

The movie “It Follows” literally revolves around a monster curse that is passed on by sleeping with people.  It’s weird, but horror movies apparently grabbed on to this cultural fear of teenagers having sex.  The plot of “It Follows” reads like a paper-thin metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.

 

You darn kids and yer unprotected sex!

 

It’s like horror movies abide by this strange, Victorian era sense of morality when it comes to sex.  Which brings us to our next topic…

 

Warped Moral Messages

The Sam Raimi movie “Drag Me to Hell” features a female loan officer who refuses an extension to an old lady, who subsequently turns out to be a gypsy or something and puts a curse on the main character which will send her to hell.

Seriously?  I mean, refusing a loan extension is a cruel thing to do, but even the IMDb plot summary points out that she only does it out of misplaced fear for her job:

“Christine Brown is a loans officer at a bank but is worried about her lot in life. She’s in competition with a competent colleague for an assistant manager position and isn’t too sure about her status with a boyfriend. Worried that her boss will think less of her if she shows weakness, she refuses a time extension on a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush, who now faces foreclosure and the loss of her house. In retaliation, the old woman place a curse on her which, she subsequently learns, will result in her being taken to hell in a few days time.”

Given that this movie seems to take place in the modern-day, why not go after the people who caused the housing bubble to burst and created the economic turmoil that likely put the old lady in danger of being foreclosed on?  What about the politicians and the rich people who sat by and let everything fall apart?  I mean, if it’s that easy to curse someone, why not curse the people who deserve it?

But that’s horror movies for you.  They attempt to justify all manner of horrible things through the flimsiest lens possible.  Take, for example, the “Saw” franchise.

If you’ve never seen the movies, the basic premise is that a serial killer kidnaps people and forces them to play elaborate games involving deadly traps.  It’s a franchise that spawned seven different movies and is even spawning another movie later this year, seven years after the last movie came out.  But what bothers me isn’t how many sequels there are, but the motivation behind the killer himself.

In the second movie, Jigsaw tells a former police detective that he attempted to commit suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Evidently, when his attempt failed, he was infused with a new appreciation for life.  And apparently, he was compelled to inspire that appreciation for life in others.

Inspiring an appreciation for life…by physically and psychologically torturing people until they have PTSD and nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And that’s if they survive.

Yep…seems legit.

 

Superstitions are not to be mocked

“There’s a logical explanation for all of this” – Guy who is about to be killed in horrific fashion

A great example of this trope can be seen in “Blair Witch”, the 2016 sequel to “The Blair Witch Project”.  It was…not very good.  Near the beginning of the movie, when the crew is first making their way into the woods, one of the characters makes their thoughts on the legend of the Blair Witch heard and mocks it for all it’s worth.  Then, on the second night, he is chased by some unknown entity and presumably killed.

Just goes to show you kids: don’t mock superstitions.  Because they’ll come true and kill you dead.

And this a common character in horror movies, especially ones involving local legends or folklore.  They’re a skeptic by nature, so they loudly proclaim their disbelief in “silly” superstitions and the like, much to the chagrin of others.

“You actually believe in Bigfoot,” they’ll ask with a mocking chuckle.  “Bigfoot isn’t real.  He’s a myth and a hoax, sustained by people who have nothing better to do with their lives.”

And then Bigfoot will promptly stroll out of the woods, rip the person’s spleen out of their chest, and it so far up their rear end that it pops out their mouth.

Actually, that sounds pretty badass.  I’d pay to see that movie.

 

Archaeology is nothing more than grave robbing

This is a weird one.

I’ve gone on record before about how I enjoy point and click adventure games.  Well I have a couple in mind when it comes to this trope: “Barrow Hill” and its sequel “Barrow Hill: The Dark Path”.

In these games, the central plot revolves around an isolated gas station and motel set near an ancient barrow or burial mound.  In the first game, archaeologist Conrad Morse triggers the horrible events that trap you and other characters in the area because he digs up the mound, taking dirt samples and treasures.  The implication is that he disturbed some kind of ancient spirit by doing so.  And in the second game, which features the spirit of an ancient Wicca witch, goes much the same way.  In the game you find the diary of an archaeologist who dug up the grave of the witch and angered her spirit.

Now, “Dark Path” ends with a message from one of the main characters stating that “there’s a difference between archaeology and grave robbing”.  But the game never makes that distinction.  There’s no point in the game where it points out what would be considered good archaeology.  Because for archaeology to work, things have to be dug up.  But according to the “Barrow Hill” series, that’s a bad thing.

You could argue that it’s more a point about having respect for ancient cultures and tradition, but without any clear indication of how you’re supposed to have respect for these things it comes across as a harsh indictment of the profession itself.  Even if it’s just about not forgetting the past, if we leave it alone eventually nature will erase any trace of these things ever existing.  Even if Conrad Morse hadn’t dug up the barrow in the first “Barrow Hill”, nature would have eventually eroded away the rocks or overgrown the area, which means that people would have forgotten about Barrow Hill anyways.  Think about how many ancient cultures or cities we don’t know about, that we may never know about because nature has long since destroyed any evidence of their passing.

Maybe Indiana Jones could get away with it.  Who knows?

 

I hope you enjoyed reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Spotlight: Stories Untold

Dude…this game?  This game dude.  THIS GAME.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been legitimately surprised by a game.  Stories Untold is a game I just stumbled into one day when browsing the Steam store.  It’s actually a very recent game too, as it came out at the end of February this year.  Reading the description on its Steam page doesn’t tell you a whole lot.  But that’s the point.

You see, Stories Untold benefits from you not knowing a lot about it.  It’s a game that revels in its mystery and in messing with the player’s head.  It’s an anthology game of sorts divided into four short “episodes” that you play through, each with their own kind of theme and setting.  For example, the first episode has you playing a fictitious text adventure game called “The House Abandon”, which of course features an empty house that you have to explore (fun fact: The House Abandon was a free game made by the developers before they made Stories Untold).

But the fact that you are playing the game on a computer WITHIN the game should cue you in to the fact that things are not going to be what they seem.

 

 

That’s a big part of the reason why this review is so hard to write, because the game works best when you don’t know what to expect.  So to that end, I’m going to be as spoiler-free as I can.  But I will tell you this: by the end of the first episode I was hooked.  I wanted to play more.  I wanted to see what other spooks and tricks the game had in store.

Stories Untold is classified as a horror game, although some would probably say it’s not that scary.  But that’s fine, because Stories Untold doesn’t rely so much on jumpscares and loud noises to scare you.  It’s a psychological game that gets under your skin as you play.  It creates a kind of tension that gnaws on you, especially after the first episode because you start expecting things to go pear-shaped at any moment.

 

The second episode involves a mysterious laboratory experiment.

 

The episodes all play out in the same fashion (for the most part).  You are put into some kind of setting, rooted in one spot, and you have to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  The first episode is pretty straight forward if you’re even slightly familiar with text adventure games, but the other episodes require you to think a bit more.  This is especially evident in the third episode.  In it, you have to decode a bunch of radio frequencies, which requires you to use a finicky microfilm reader.  The tasks get more and more complex as the episode goes on, and at one part has you translating Morse Code.  I enjoyed the episode, but I can see why it would get tedious for some people.

 

Damn you microfilm…DAMN YOUUUUUU!

 

And that’s how each episode progresses, through different kinds of puzzles.  Unfortunately, this is where Stories Untold sometimes drops the ball.  Occasionally the puzzles are frustratingly obtuse, with no clear indication of how you’re supposed to progress.  This is especially true with the text adventure bits, as the word parser it uses sometimes won’t recognize the phrase you’re using even if it is the right thing to do (i.e. typing “open door with key” won’t work but “use key” will).  I know I ran into a minor roadblock near the beginning of the first episode.  The game was telling me to find a generator around the back of the house, but when I went back there the description didn’t say anything about a generator.  Turns out I had to type in “look around” as a command before I could find it, which took me a few minutes to figure out.

Occasionally frustrating puzzles aside, the presentation in this game is fantastic.  Everything has a retro science-fiction feel to it, from the computer interfaces to the glossy shine everything has over it.  The stories have an old-school sci-fi vibe to them as well, reminding me of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.  The story does sometimes get a little trite and cliche (especially in the final episode).  But I’ll say this: while Stories Untold might not always tell the most original story, it certainly tells its story in an original way.

So if you’re interested in unique storytelling and horror, I highly recommend giving this game a look.  It’s one of the more unique video games I’ve come across, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing through it.  It’s not a very long game, clocking in around two to four hours long (I completed it in just under three).  But it’s something that should be experienced.  Sure, you could go read what it’s all about, but that would spoil the magic of the game.  I’m glad I went in not knowing a lot about the game because it blew my mind, especially with the first episode.

If you like stories in video games, give Stories Untold a shot.  You won’t regret it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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Spotlight: The Babadook

Indie movies are often hard to recommend.  They tend to be very different from the usual fare you see in theaters, and not always in a good way.  In some ways they can be more rough than their big budget counterparts, often having to rely on their uniqueness rather than flashy special effects.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

The Babadook is one of those times where it does.

Let me get something out of the way: I’ve been planning on watching this movie for a long time but due to multiple factors (including my own laziness) I never got around to it until now.  But I’m glad I did, because The Babadook is something that I’ve wanted out of modern horror movies for a while.  It’s actually about something.  It has a point, a theme behind it that drives the movie and its horror.  Compare this to most modern movies, like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, where the sole point of the movie is to scare you.

The Babadook is an Australian indie horror movie that centers around Amelia Vanek and her son Samuel.  The movie opens with Amelia having a dream about her husband, who we find out a little bit later died in a car crash while rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.  From the very beginning of the movie you can tell that the relationship between mother and son is a little strained.  When Sam hears monsters in his room, Amelia reads him a bedtime story and then sleeps with him.  But in the middle of the night, she brushes his hands off her and scoots to the other side of the bed.

As the film progresses we see that Sam has some emotional issues.  He insists on creating weapons to battle imaginary monsters and Amelia is actually called in from her job as an assisted living nurse to his school when he brings one of his creations there.  Frustrated with how they’re treating the situation, calling Sam “the boy” instead of by his name, Amelia pulls him out of the school and vows to find him a better one.

But then, one night a red book mysteriously shows up in Sam’s room.  Its title is “Mister Babadook” and the monster it describes becomes Sam’s new obsession.

First and foremost my favorite thing about The Babadook is that it relies on tension and spooky visuals rather than cheap jumpscares.  If you read my review of Blair Witch that I wrote last month you’ll remember that was one of my primary complaints about the movie.  It was obvious that it was an artificial experience meant to scare you rather than tell an interesting or meaningful story.  It focused too often on jarring audio cuts and things jumping out in front of the camera rather than atmosphere or tension.  Not so with The Babadook.  The movie keeps you unsettled, especially with its scenery shots, showing dark and unnerving shots of the house at night.  At one point it shows a time-lapse of dark clouds filling the sky, creating a surreal feeling as you watch.

 

the-babadook-3

 

As I said, the movie prefers tension over shocking the viewer with loud noises.  In fact, it’s not really until the movie hits the half hour mark that anything notably supernatural starts to occur.  Up to that point there’s a few bumps in the night and such, but that’s it.  Things really start to get creepy after Amelia tears apart the Babadook book, frustrated with how it has affected Sam.  But later on, she hears a knock on her front door.  And when she goes to look, she finds the red book sitting on her front step, pages taped back together.  Not only that, but there are now new pages made with the intent to taunt her, saying that the more she denies the existence of the Babadook the stronger it becomes.

For fear of spoiling any more, I’m going to stop talking about the story there.  Suffice it to say, it’s not always a fun movie to watch.  It’s gut-wrenching and raw.  And it does all of this without any gore or exaggerated horror elements.  For example, the scene with the cockroaches coming out from behind the fridge could have easily veered into cheap gross out territory, but it thankfully doesn’t.

 

Nah I'm not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I'm not creeped out, no way.

Nah I’m not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I’m not creeped out, no way.

 

And the movie also holds back when it comes to the appearances of the monster.  You never get to see a whole lot of it during the film, usually catching only quick glimpses (although you see a decent amount during its first major appearance while Amelia is in bed).  And on top of that, the Babadook says very little throughout the movie, making the creature even more mysterious.  Interestingly, I found out that for the monster the director decided to use stop-motion effects, as she wanted the movie “to be all in camera.”  Initially I thought the approach was a little goofy, but the longer the movie went on I realized that it enhanced the surreal nature of the experience.  In fact, if there’s one thing I can really complain about with the presentation of the monster it comes from the sound department.  One of the noises the Babadook makes is a strange, stock dragon roar that I know I’ve heard somewhere else (from a video game I think).  It seems out of place compared to the rest of the sounds, and every time it briefly pulled me out of the experience.

 

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

 

Speaking of criticisms, the only other major problem I had with the film involved the ending.  The ending works as it is, showing us the resolution between Amelia and Samuel’s characters, but we don’t really get any resolution with any other characters in the movie, which I thought was strange since the movie spends a lot of time showing how things fall apart between Amelia and others, specifically with her sister Claire.  It seems like a missed opportunity to me.

The other thing that bothered me about the ending has to do with the Babadook itself.  I won’t go into specifics, but part of the ending feels like it happens simply out of consistency for the rules they made up relating to the monster.  It probably has a deeper symbolic meaning, but for some reason that bit of the movie’s ending just stood out to me as being different from the rest of it.

But in the end The Babadook has a lot of heart in it.  The actors who play Amelia and Sam are great, convincingly portraying the strange relationship between mother and son.  Amelia always appears tired and worn, but tries her best to take care of Sam and truly does love him.  Sam in turn loves his mom and says more than once that he wants to protect her.  He speaks his mind, which as the movie shows doesn’t always have the best results.  But together the two of them form a sympathetic pair that serve as the driving force of the entire movie.  It might sound cliche to say, but The Babadook is more than just a spooky movie.  It’s about something altogether human.  And the Babadook itself is more than just a monster.  It’s a metaphor waiting to be interpreted by the audience.

I highly recommend this movie if you like horror movies.  Even if you don’t I still would because of how unique and powerful it is.  It has a greater aim in mind than simply being a scare fest, although I will say it certainly succeeded in getting under my skin at times, especially during the latter half.  But it succeeds because substance and style work hand-in-hand to create a truly atmospheric experience.

It’s not always a pleasant movie to watch, but it will certainly stick with you for a long time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

All Noise: Where the Horror Genre Went Wrong

I know that Halloween was two days ago at this point, but I can’t help but use the opportunity to once again complain about the state of one of my favorite story genres.  I’ve spoken about this topic several times before, but I never went too in depth on it.  I mostly lamented how horror uses tropes as a crutch, continually making stories without any real stroke of originality.

Also demons.  I’m really REALLY sick of demons.

But in the end, demons are only a symptom of the problem.  To find out where the horror genre went wrong, we have to start by taking a look at some of the classic horror movies.  I’m going to be using The Thing (1982) as my main example here.  The Thing is a movie about a group of antarctic researchers who are hunted by a malevolent alien entity that can assume the form of its victims.  It carries a palpable sense of tension and dread throughout the entire movie, as the characters have no idea if the person next to them is the alien or not.

The Thing is a slow-paced movie, choosing to focus on the paranoia brewing between its characters rather than the horrific appearance of the unmasked alien monster (even nowadays the contorting of the alien’s form is pretty gross to look at).  And this is where its greatest success is, focusing on the characters instead of the monster.  The paranoia between them can even be seen as an allegory for the Cold War paranoia that was still present in the country at that time.

By contrast, what is Paranormal Activity about?  Well…uh…two people being dicks to each other for most of the movie instead of using their time to battle the demon that has LITERALLY BEEN FOLLOWING ONE OF THEM SINCE CHILDHOOD?!

Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed Paranormal Activity.  But this is the problem I see with modern horror films.  They’re not really about anything anymore.  They’ve become mostly soulless, vapid popcorn flicks, meant only to elicit momentary frights.  Once you’ve left the theater though, all the terror that you may or may not have felt evaporates.  Nothing lingers in your mind because there is nothing to linger.  It’s all just loud noises without any subtext.

Recently I wrote a review of Blair Witch, which is a direct sequel to the original Blair Witch Project.  And while I lamented the fact that it was basically a shadow retelling of the first movie (which makes sense in a way since the first movie came out seventeen years ago), I more lamented the fact that it was just chock full of scares that had no purpose other than to make you jump.  It gets so bad that at one point, when they jumpscare you twice in a row, one of the characters mutters “stop doing that” under her breath in the movie’s attempt to make a self-referential jab at itself.  And that’s another thing I hate about modern horror films.  They’ll crack jokes like that about themselves as if being self-aware of how cliché they are makes everything better.

No.  No it doesn’t.

You can write a horror story about people making bad decisions (and let’s be honest, all horror movies are pretty much characters making bad decisions) without pointing that fact out.  It doesn’t make your story better to do that.  If anything it breaks the immersion for the audience by making them even more aware that this is an artificial construct made solely for the purpose of scaring them.  Horror didn’t used to be like that.  Take The Shining (1980) for instance.  The Shining didn’t really feature a visible monster or demon of any kind.  It was more about an omnipresent evil taking advantage of Jack Torrance’s already present weakness due to his alcoholism and anger issues.  In this way, the evil becomes a reflection of what’s already there, instead of just being some foe the characters attempt to defeat.

Even The Exorcist (1973), one of the original demonic possession movies, was about more than just “ooh demons…spooky scary!”  It was about the family and how the event affected them.  It was about the priest who lost his faith and must find himself again.  It was about the corrupted innocence of a child beset upon by evil.  It wasn’t just about cheap thrills.  It was about trying to unsettle the audience in ways that went beyond gore and loud noises.

It sounds weird, but to put it simply horror movies seem too focused on trying to be scary instead of actually being scary.  And to me it seems to have started with the rise of slasher flick movies in the ’80s and ’90s.

Now I hate to do this, because I don’t like generalizing a whole genre of anything.  And I understand that Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger are iconic horror characters.  But I can’t help but feel that slasher flicks marked the turning point.  The rise of slasher movies meant that horror movies went from having deep, involved stories to having flimsy pretexts for watching teenagers get hacked to pieces.  Like I said, I hate to generalize like this, but it seems to me that these movies almost fetishized violence in a way.  And following that, horror movies become less and less thematic and more and more shallow.  As much as I like Paranormal Activity, any sense of terror I feel when I’m watching the movie fades away the moment it’s turned off.  Nothing really lingers.  I don’t feel any sense of creeping dread.  I don’t find myself looking over events in the movie, searching for hidden meanings or anything like that.

All of it is very surface level when it comes to being scary.  It’s not something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the pod people are really just an allegory for the Red Menace (AKA Communism).  Instead it’s about a demon who spends the entire movie just messing around with the main characters instead of killing them outright.

You know, because reasons.  There’s no rhyme, reason, or logic to it.  It’s just meant to drag you along for an hour or two until its inevitable conclusion.

Although there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.  There have been more horror movies as of late that eschew the normal formula.  Like The Witch, a movie which just came out earlier this year.  I haven’t seen it myself, but from what I understand it takes place in the 1600’s and focuses more on a family slowly turning against each other rather than some kind of monster.  It’s supposed to be a dark, brooding movie rather than a loud, brash one.

There’s also 10 Cloverfield Lane, which some may argue is more of a thriller, but it still has horror elements to it.  10 Cloverfield Lane traps its characters inside a handcrafted survival bunker while some unknown catastrophe may or may not be happening outside.  But the true creep factor of the movie comes from John Goodman himself.  Throughout the entire movie you’re never sure if you can trust him.  Just when you start to, something else comes to light that skews your opinion of him once again.  It’s a tense movie that never lets up, and that’s what makes it so great.

That’s what I want to see more of in horror: tension and suspense that isn’t just a setup for an eventual jumpscare.  I want a character to be able to walk down a dark and spooky hallway without it always ending with someone or something jumping out at them like an older sibling playing a prank on you.  I want characters who don’t feel like monstrous idiots who deserve everything that’s coming to them because they ignored the obvious warning signs.  Horror works best when it places believable, complex characters in unbelievable situations.  We don’t need more walking stereotypes with the IQ of a bag of rocks.

And seriously, stop with the demons.  We get it, Ouija boards are bad news.  Enough already.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 1

People have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  And why shouldn’t they?  It was the era of Spielberg.  It was the era of movies like E.T. and Back to the Future.  Stephen King was writing books like ItThe Mist, and Cujo.  It saw the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which is widely credited for saving the video game market after it crashed.  Plenty of modern pop-culture nods are taken from the 1980’s, and even the book Ready Player One has nothing but reverence for the decade.

But nostalgia is a tricky thing.  If we aren’t careful, it can turn our vision rose-colored, obscuring any unpleasant details of the past.  While we owe the 1980’s a lot in terms of pop-culture, nothing is perfect.  E.T. and The Thing might be fondly remembered from the decade as powerhouse movies, but there was plenty of garbage to go along with it.  And while Mario and Zelda are revered video game franchises that continue to this day, there were plenty of games that came out that were cheap cash grabs with little in the way of intelligent design choices and frustrating controls.  Not to mention that back then there wasn’t much in the way of seeking out reviews for games, so often kids were stuck with what they got.

This is the line that Stranger Things straddles.  Stranger Things is a Netflix original series that released this past July, and follows the residents of a small town that deal with mysterious happenings that begin with the disappearance of young Will Byers.  The first season is eight episodes long, and from the start the influence of the ’80s is obvious.  The show opens with a group of kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.  After being told that they have to quit for the night (as it is a school night) the group split up and head home.  However, Will Byers isn’t seen again after that night.  He disappears after seeing something strange that chases him through the woods near his house.  It is his disappearance that strings everything along throughout this first season.

And I must say, what a damn good showing.

There is a reason why Stranger Things basically rocketed to the top of many Netflix queues.  It’s smartly paced and expertly written.  The characters are well acted and fleshed out over the eight-episode span.  And even despite the dark tone the show has a lot of the time, it manages to be incredibly charming.  This is especially due to the kids.  If you remember Freaks and Geeks, that show from the end of the ’90s, it feels similar to that.  It has that same charm of being part of a group of outcasts, the “freaks” so to speak.  Stranger Things even has the bully characters, who will show up every now and then simply to give the kids a hard time.

In this way, the kids feel essential to the tone of the show, which is ironic because part of the reason Stranger Things wound up as a Netflix show was because every studio the Duffer brothers (the creators of the show) pitched the show to wanted to cut out the kids as characters and make it more about the adults.  After having watched the show, I can’t imagine it without them.  I’m glad the Duffer brothers waited until they found a place that would honor their original vision.

But what about the adults?  How do they fare compared to the kids?  I would say just as well.  Everyone in this show seems to fit into their roles, even if their characters aren’t initially likable (the sheriff seems a little grouchy at first, but you quickly come to realize that he’s just reserved due to tragedy in his past).  I was particularly struck by Winona Ryder.  She plays Joyce Byers, Will’s mother, and gives a very convincing performance of a mother who’s just lost her child.  Throughout the season (especially the early episodes) we see her breaking down many times, especially so when she starts experiencing some strange events.  Predictably no one believes her and they’re convinced she’s just making it up in her head to cope with the grief.  This affects Joyce greatly, and her pain feels genuine.  It’s not easy to act a role like that without it feeling like you’re either underplaying it too much or being too melodramatic.  It’s a fine line, but Ryder walks it gracefully.  She stands out as one of the best parts of the season along with the kids.  All the other adults fit their roles, but I’m going to avoid talking about them to cut down on spoilers.

As I said earlier the show’s pacing is nearly pitch-perfect.  Each episode is briskly paced, keeping you engaged with what’s going on without feeling like it overstays its welcome.  They also keep handing you little bits and pieces of the mystery to keep you enticed while leaving you just enough in the dark that you want to learn more.  It never feels like X-Files or Lost, shows where you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they would never explain anything because they spend so much time building up the mystery.  Part of this is due to the difference in formats.  With Stranger Things being only eight episodes, they can’t spend a whole lot of time being mysterious.  They have to grab you, entice you, but give you enough to feel satisfying in its short run.  Compare that to the twenty-odd episodes in each season of X-Files and Lost, and you see how those shows can feel like they’re being dragged on too long.

Now that I’ve spent so much time hyping up how good the show is, the question becomes is there anything bad about it?  Well I can safely say that most of my gripes are minor.  Sometimes the special effects can look a little hokey and the CGI-ness of them is obvious.  One of the episode cliffhangers is resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, despite the fact that the cliffhanger suggests that the solution should be much more difficult than that.

My only major gripe is with one of the characters.  It has nothing to do with the acting, just more with the character’s purpose.

Minor spoilers follow below.  You have been warned.

Early on in the season we are told about Lonnie, Joyce’s ex-husband.  He’s introduced as a small red herring for the characters, as the sheriff initially suggests that most of the time when children go missing they’re simply with a relative or someone they know.  Will’s older brother Jonathan goes to visit Lonnie in around episode three I think, but Lonnie shows up later on in the season to help console Joyce.  At first, when we hear about Lonnie, it sounds like he’s a total jerk-off who mocked Will for liking things like Dungeons and Dragons.  But when we actually see him in this later episodes, he seems like he might actually be a little more caring then we’ve been led to believe.  But this is where the show drops the ball.  Instead of doing anything interesting with him, all it seems to lead up to is a dramatic shouting match between him and Joyce, the only purpose of which is to cement in our minds the fact that she is the better parent of the two.  It feels like unnecessary drama that could have been filtered out.

Spoilers over.

Aside from that, I can’t really find anything bad to say about the show’s debut season.  It manages to be charming, enticing, and satisfying all at the same time.  And it sets up a few enticing tidbits at the end for the next season, which is said to be releasing sometime next year.  All that remains to be seen is if the show will fall victim to the “sophomore slump”, which is a term that means that the second season of a television show is often a bit of a letdown.  And when a show like this has such a strong first season, such a thing could be devastating for it.

But all that’s in the future.  If you’re looking for a good mystery with well-developed characters and elements of horror, Stranger Things is right up your alley.  If your alley is dark, spooky, and full of monsters that is.  Whatever man, I won’t judge.

 

That’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Back Into the Woods: Blair Witch Review

It was the sequel nobody asked for.

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it became one of the most successful independent movies of all time.  It was a fictional documentary about the exploits of three film students who decide to make a movie about the legend of the Blair Witch.  They travel to a small town in Maryland to interview the locals and gather information, but things go wrong when they decide to take a hike in the woods in search of more possible information.  They get lost, spooky things happen, someone disappears, and so on.

The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, the antithesis to the standard Hollywood formula.  With a low-budget and small crew, it couldn’t rely on special effects to scare the audience so it went for a more nuanced approach.  Even the way it was promoted was different, being marketed primarily through the internet.  This actually sparked debates over whether the film was real or fake, which gave it an air of mystery that would be impossible with today’s information saturated world.

Fast-forward to 2016, and we have a big-budget Hollywood sequel to an independent horror movie called Blair Witch.  And how did it turn out?

Well…it’s okay.

My main issue with Blair Witch is that, instead of taking what made its predecessor so influential and expanding upon that, the movie takes the tried and true Hollywood route when it comes to making a horror movie.  And you know what that means right?

Jumpscares.  Lots and lots of jumpscares.

Spooky loud bangs in the night?  Check.  Loud popping noises when the camera is turned off or cuts to a new scene?  Check.  Someone suddenly appearing in front of the camera causing the camera person to scream?  Oh you better believe they check that one-off the list.  They even pull that trick twice in a row at one point, which prompts one of the characters to mutter “stop doing that” as some sort of in-joke.  And speaking of annoying jumpscare tactics, there’s even a point near the beginning where the movie cuts from a quiet living room scene to a suddenly loud nightclub.

YEAH GET DOWN AND PARTY!  FEEL THOSE PULSING BEATS!  ARE YOU SCARED YET?!

Honestly all these tactics did was make me all the more aware that I was watching a movie set up to try to scare me.  Part of the reason The Blair Witch Project did so well was that it didn’t spend its time trying to convince you its scary.  It crept along at a slow pace with very little happening throughout.  Blair Witch on the other hand throws out jumpscares like they’re candy.  And I get why.  They’re attempting to keep the audience on edge by never letting them feel safe.  But the thing is, so many of these scare moments are too telegraphed.  You can tell when they’re about to happen.  Moments before that cut to the nightclub scene, two of the characters are asked whether or not they believe the stories about the Blair Witch.  They simply stare at each other in silence for a few seconds before it jumps to the nightclub.  And it’s painfully obvious they were going to attempt something like that because it’s the Hollywood definition of horror.

This artificial feeling extends to the way the movie is shot as well.  Much like the first movie, Blair Witch is presented as a found footage movie.  And for the first twenty minutes to a half hour you can tell that the movie is shot by professionals who are trying too hard to look like amateurs.  The “wobbly cam” is strong with this one, if you catch my drift.

Now all this isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have any scare factor at all.  I will admit there were a couple of moments that genuinely sent a chill up my spine, such as when one of the characters hears disembodied screaming or something echoing through the trees moments before he’s chased by an unseen entity.  I thought that was rather effective, instilling a sense of dread in the audience before dropping the hammer on them.  But moments like that were too few, sandwiched in between far too frequent “BOO GOT YA” moments.  I mean this is the woods in the dead of night.  That’s creepy enough on its own.  Throw in sounds that echo like crazy and can go for miles, and you’ve got a recipe for nightmares.  One of the characters even mentions how sound can travel a long distance in this area, but the movie never really takes advantage of it.

The same kind of thing happens with the story.  It has a solid, interesting premise and introduces a concept that could have added a whole new layer to the story, but the movie seems too concerned with trying to frighten the audience.  The story follows James Donahue, the brother of Heather Donahue who was one of the characters in the original movie.  James finds a video clip online which seems to show an image of Heather even though she disappeared twenty years ago.  Not knowing what to think, James gathers his friends Peter, Lisa, and Ashley and they all make a trip to the woods where she disappeared.  Tagging along with them are Talia and Lane, the two locals who found the video James watched and posted it online.

Now this is actually a great premise that could have been used to add new layers to the Blair Witch story.  The problem is that instead of expanding on things, the movie feels like a soft reboot of the original.  It follows a lot of the same plot points and does a lot of the same things.  There are some new tidbits here and there, but the movie doesn’t dwell on them long enough for it to really matter.  For example, later on the group splits into two separate groups.  After wandering for a day, one group finds themselves back at their campsite somehow and decides they have to spend the night once more.  Well during the night the other group stumbles into them again, only somehow instead of being one afternoon it’s been five days for them since they last saw each other.  It’s a really weird and creepy detail, but everything goes to hell too soon afterwards for that detail to really matter.  And this seems to be true for all the new stuff they added in this one.

Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed the second half of the movie.  Once things got going, the movie kept up a decent focus on action and the weird stuff to remain interesting throughout the rest of its 89 minute running time.  It no longer relies on cheap scares and actually focuses on the struggle of the characters to survive.  There’s one particular sequence inside a cramped underground tunnel that actually makes you feel for one of the characters as she starts breaking down and crying while she’s alone in the darkness.  It’s actually a powerful moment and it makes you pause.

In the end, this movie definitely earns the label of “mixed bag”.  There are some really good elements in the movie and it has good writing in parts, but the obnoxious jumpscares and overly vague nature of the story leaves a lot to be desired.  When the movie ended, I didn’t feel like I was any closer to understanding what happened to James’ sister or what the Blair Witch actually is.  Instead, all I got were a bunch of cheap scares and story elements that weren’t fleshed out enough to matter.  I guess the thing the frustrates me most about the movie is that it had such great potential to be an amazing follow-up to a classic horror movie, but it squandered that potential and became the same thing you can find in pretty every other horror movie in theaters these days.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re looking for a movie with cheap thrills, Blair Witch certainly has you covered.

If you’re hoping for something deeper, I would look elsewhere.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Facebook page for Rumination on the Lake here.

Are Jumpscares Scary?

It may seem like a loaded question, but it’s one worth asking.  Are jumpscares scary or not?

Now, I’ve already talked about my frustrations with the horror genre and I’ve listed five horror clichés that I don’t like.  Because I love the horror genre.  It’s one of my favorites and tells some of the most interesting and captivating stories.  But in more recent years, the horror genre has become so mired in this idea of having to be “scary”, which results in treading and re-treading already worn ground in an attempt to scare audiences without any real meaning.  For example, ever since Alien did the “cat jumpscare” back in the ’70s, it’s become a staple of movies and television shows.

And this I think shows part of the problem with horror as a genre.  Creators continually looks back at whatever was popular or effective and then simply tries to re-do it.  I mean they’re even doing a sequel to the Blair Witch project simply called “Blair Witch“.  Now, admittedly, the movie doesn’t look that bad, but it just shows how Hollywood has no original ideas for scaring people anymore.  It’s pretty much all demonic possession movies nowadays, which are routinely panned critically and I would imagine don’t do too well at the box office (although The Conjuring 2 did get some praise earlier this year).

But I digress.  Back to the question at hand, are jumpscares scary?  They can be.  They just have to be done right.

See, for a jumpscare to work, it has to capitalize on built-up tension throughout a scene or on its pure shock value.  If people know it’s coming, then it loses a lot of its power.  Everyone knows that when a character is moving down a dark hallway with spooky music that suddenly cuts out before they round a corner, a jumpscare is about to happen.  There needs to be a little more subtlety than that or it needs to happen when the audience isn’t expecting it.

A great example of the latter can be seen in Paranormal Activity 2.  If you haven’t seen any of the movies, I’ll sum it up for you: people set up cameras around their house.  Spooky stuff happens.  Something about demons.  That’s the general gist of it, but for how cliché it all sounds, the movies are surprisingly effective.  They’ll often just show you dark nighttime scenes with nothing happening in them because the filmmakers know your eyes will be darting about the screen trying to find even the most minute of movement.  But one of the best scary moments in the movie actually happens in the middle of the day.

Now, I’ve already talked about this scenario in my “Horror clichés” post, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.  There’s a scene later in Paranormal Activity 2 where one of the people living in the house sits down at the kitchen table to read either a magazine or newspaper (I honestly can’t tell).  And the scene sits there for a good ten or fifteen seconds with nothing happening before, suddenly, all the cabinets in the kitchen fly open with a crash.

You can take a look at the scene here if you want.

I think what makes the scene particularly effective is how it raises your alert level just seconds before the jumpscare happens.  You see the character in the scene suddenly turn and look away from her reading, almost as if she heard something.  Your brain is immediately like “something’s wrong here” and then BOOM!  You just got jumpscared.

Another thing that makes that scene work so well is that the movie has done a great job of building up the tension.  The Paranormal Activity movies are a very slow burn.  Very little happens for much of the movie until later on when things get more and more violent and suddenly the entire thing descends into chaos (at least for the first three movies…the fourth literally has a chandelier nearly falling on the main character in the first ten or fifteen minutes).

But unfortunately, it seems that most movies don’t want to take the time to be scary.  Instead, they want to get immediately to the scary bits, resorting to things popping up in your face and screaming as attempts to scare you.  I remember watching the trailer for Insidious Chapter 3 in a movie theater some months back and couldn’t help but laugh at how utterly cliché the last half of the trailer is.  It starts off decently enough, with a girl knocking on the wall thinking that it’s her neighbor knocking back until he reveals through text that he’s not him.  Cue creepy children’s lullaby and every trope in the book: old lady in dark hallway, séance gone wrong, creepy shadow people abruptly disappearing, mysterious oily footprints, and so on.  The trailer even ends with someone going into the darkened basement and getting scared by someone hanging from the ceiling and screaming in their face.

Who knows?  Maybe that’s what people want.  I don’t really know anymore.  There has to be a reason these movies keep getting made after all.

In the end I think horror is going to be better served combining itself with other genres, because straight horror movies are far too predictable.  Even 10 Cloverfield Lane (which is a great movie by the way) feels more like a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie.  But perhaps that’s for the best.  Because if all we keep getting are these installments of movies revolving around demons and possession, then I think the horror genre is going to die a slow death.  In all fairness clichés are clichés for a reason.  They were effective at one point in time, but they lose effectiveness the more often they are used.  The cat jumpscare was really unique when it was used in Alien but now it either elicits eye rolls or laughter (and it is often used for comedic purposes instead of scary purposes these days because of how overdone it is).

You see, if your primary method of scaring people is loud noises, then the movie won’t stick out in your mind.  You need to leave a lasting impression.  You need to build up to the jumpscare instead of just throwing them at people one after another.  It’s the reason why I remember 10 Cloverfield Lane so vividly but can barely remember the names of Insidious and The Conjuring, because 10 Cloverfield Lane, even if I hadn’t gone to see it, left me with a very damn good trailer that sticks out in my mind compared to the usual fare (I actually had to think to remember the name of that Insidious movie…that’s how generic the trailer was).

To truly scare someone with a jumpscare, you need to earn it first.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.