THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

Director: Tobe Hooper
Producer: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Stars: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hanson, Paul A. Partain

. . . had they lived very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day . . .

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)

In 1974, there was no slasher. No Michael Myers, no Jason Voorhees, and certainly no Freddy Krueger. There was no monster-plagued suburbia, no broken closet doors. No “Do you like scary movies?” None of the telltale sh sh k k, the quiet orchestral reckoning that signals Jason’s approach. However, when October of 1974 rolled around, there was an onscreen monster who finally slayed more than just one victim. There was desert. And there was, emblazoned on billboards across real-life America, another question: “Who will survive . . . and what will be left of them?”

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) begins in Muerto County, Texas in the August of 1973: five young adults drive through the desolation. Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty have decided, on this plain August afternoon, to drive out to visit their grandfather’s grave and poke around the old family estate. They’ve enlisted their friends, Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), as well as Sally’s beau, Jerry (Allen Danziger), to join them, and the gang readily takes advantage of the opportunity for adventure, smoking joint after joint, pondering astrology, and making surprisingly interesting conversation. (Although, perhaps my surprise reveals a bias of my own . . . a giant fan of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, I’m well-accustomed to the shallow talk of Camp Crystal Lake’s counselors.) As they drive, discussing fate and the stars—as, of course, Pam pages through her astrology magazine—the news blares over the radio. Trouble is afoot.

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS DESCRIBE SPECIFIC SCENES IN THE FILM AND REVEALS THE ULTIMATE FATE OF THE CHARACTERS.

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HOLY HELL (2016) dir. Will Allen

Producers: Will Allen, Tracey Harnish, Alexandra Johnes
Stars: Will Allen, Michel Gomez, Cristala Allen, Gina Allen

CNN poster for Holy Hell, depicting people sitting cross-legged in a field

HOLY HELL (2016) dir. Will Allen

What’s in a cult? Our culture is saturated with them. The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, and The People’s Temple (the site of the Jonestown Massacre) may be the most famous of American cults, but they’re hardly the only few. A cult is defined by three characteristics, all of which are rather vague: a charismatic leader, the use of “coercive persuasion,” and some form of exploitation. In movies, cults are glaringly suspicious. The leaders are always heavy-browed and blank-eyed, darkly hinting about “transcending Earth” or “becoming one” or something equally as ominous. But, if in real life cults were so obviously spotted, it’s safe to say that they would have died out long before now. Would you notice a cult if the leader demanded no sacrifices? If the fellow members were the smartest, most creative people you had ever met? If your siblings were also members?

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GREEN ROOM (2016) dir. Jeremy Saulnier

CONTENT WARNING: The following review contains discussion of white supremacy (including the appearance and activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups) and repeated references to the Holocaust.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Neil Kopp, Victor Moyers, Anish Savjani
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots

“What was the name of your second to last song?”

“Uh … ‘T-Toxic Evolution.’”

“It’s fucking hard, man. That’s the one I did her to.”

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GREEN ROOM (2016)

The Ain’t Rights, a traveling punk rock band desperate for cash, know for sure that they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when they reluctantly agree to play at a dive bar where an acquaintance’s cousin works. Tadpole (David W. Thompson) describes the punk rock scene at their new venue as “right-wing,” anathema to rebels Pat (Anton Yelchin, giving a captivating final performance before his sudden death in June 2016), Reece (Joe Cole), Tiger (Callum Turner), and Sam (Alia Shawkat). Still, they reluctantly press on, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, things could not be worse: what Tadpole understated as “right-wing” turns out to be a band of neo-Nazi punks … and that’s only the beginning of the misfortune to come. When Pat stumbles upon the scene of a stabbing, he is detained with the rest of his band and Amber (Imogen Poots), a local punk caught up in the same illicit mess.

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THE INVITATION (2015) dir. Karyn Kusama

Director: Karyn Kusama
Producers: Martha Griffin, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, Nick Spicer
Writers: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman

THE INVITATION (2015)

Director Karyn Kusama is a force of nature cinema; in 2000, she swept film festivals—awarded at Sundance, Cannes, Deauville, Ghent International, Gotham, and Sitges—with GIRLFIGHT, the groundbreaking tale of a young girl blazing trails as a boxer and, in 2009, JENNIFER’S BODY rocked the worlds of horror fans and lesbians alike. THE INVITATION (2015) is something of a departure—most apparently, the empowered and deeply complex female protagonist typical of Kusama’s films is absent. Perhaps this absence of transgression is what makes THE INVITATION comparably dull … Kusama’s latest film is somewhat lackluster.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has suffered tremendously in the recent past: after his son, Ty (Aiden Lovekamp), dies in a tragic accident, his wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), meets another man at a grief support group and promptly divorces him for her new lover. Given all that, it’s understandable that he is loath to accept an invitation from Eden to attend a dinner party—held at their old home, where she and her lover, David (Michiel Huisman)—now her husband—live. However, with some convincing from his girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzi Corinealdi), Will agrees to give Eden and David a chance. When he arrives, Eden’s and his mutual friends are all in attendance, making themselves at home in a strange situation. What only Will seems to intuit is how strange things will become—and how dangerous.

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The attendees gather together, at David’s (Michiel Huisman) insistence, and watch a video on his laptop. (Image courtesy of Karyn Kusama, Bobby Shore.)

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STRANGER THINGS, S1E5: “The Flea and the Acrobat” (2016) dir. Matt and Ross Duffer

Directors: Matt and Ross Duffer
Producers: Matt and Ross Duffer, Dan Cohen, Karl Gajdusek, Cindy Holland, Shawn Levy, Matt Thunell, Brian Wright
Writer: Alison Tatlock
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder

STRANGER THINGS Cover Image

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

A heightened sense of suspense sets apart Chapter 5 of STRANGER THINGS, “The Flea and the Acrobat.” You’ll recall that in Chapter 4, Joyce was convinced that her son’s recovered corpse was a fake and Hopper discovered that she was right. The boys are still fervently searching for Will, having been convinced by a radio transition supported by Eleven’s telekinesis. Nancy and Steve, if you happen to care, are fighting.

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STRANGER THINGS, S1E1: “The Vanishing of Will Byers” (2016) dir. Matt and Ross Duffer

STRANGER THINGS Cover Image

The first season of STRANGER THINGS hit Netflix on July 15th and, within days, it seemed, everyone had seen it. I had been tangentially aware of the development of STRANGER THINGS, seen the trailers, and looked forward to it, but I did not—could not have—anticipated the splash that the series would make. I went to my annual two-week residency for my MFA program on the very day it was released, and by the end of the first weekend I was there, I had received phone calls and text messages from friends urging me to watch it as soon as possible, eager to discuss. Residency swept me up, and I didn’t get a chance to watch it at all during those two weeks, but I turned it on within minutes of getting home. Happily, I have now had a chance to dissect STRANGER THINGS’ premiere season with my friends—and now, with you, too!

STRANGER THINGS is a science-fiction/horror hybrid which, in the vein of a new wave of nostalgia television—THE GOLDBERGS, RED OAKS—takes place in the 1980s, in the heart of the American Midwest. At the crux of the series are four pre-teenage boys, realistic in their sometimes-exasperating blend of geekiness, naïveté, and sheer cuteness. Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Will (Noah Schnapp), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) play Dungeons & Dragons, where they band together to defeat mythical beasts like the dreaded Demogorgon. “Something’s coming … something thirsty for blood,” Mike announces to his comrades as they finish up a ten-hour D&D campaign, and this first line of the series foreshadows everything to come. Strange things indeed come to Hawkins, Indiana: a beguiling stranger, a monster from another world, and a mysterious government site that could be the cause of it all …

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE OF STRANGER THINGS.

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LIGHTS OUT (2016) dir. David F. Sandberg

Director: David F. Sandberg
Producers: James Wan, Lawrence Grey, Eric Heisserer
Writers: Eric Heisserer, David F. Sandberg
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman

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LIGHTS OUT (2016)

In the past two or three years, there has been a rash of Mommy Issues in horror.  Satan overtakes Carolyn Perron in THE CONJURING (2013), Amelia morphs into Mommie Dearest in THE BABADOOK (2014), and Lukas and Elias face identity crises when their mother is rendered unrecognizable in GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH) (2014). Of course, this is nothing new: no matter how far horror progresses from its origins, Mrs. Bates of PSYCHO (1960) is never far behind in our collective imagination. The newest addition to the bunch is LIGHTS OUT (2016), a story which is about far more than it seems at surface level. From the trailer, viewers can glean themes of the uncanny—light and darkness—a haunting and, of course, a disruption to the American family. But LIGHTS OUT—much like THE BABADOOK, in fact—is an allegory of mental illness, one with a decidedly less easily discerned ending.

For our protagonists, something lurks in the shadows. When the pre-credits scene opens, Paul (Billy Burke) is Facetiming his son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman) from the textile factory, where he is working late. Martin is clearly distressed, hedging and glancing off-screen. His father reassures him that he will be home soon. His son hesitates, then says: “It’s just … she’s talking to herself.”

This is our introduction to Sophie (Maria Bello), the family matriarch and Paul’s wife. Perhaps she is schizophrenic—or just quirky—but Paul’s weary response indicates that such behavior is nothing new. Later in the scene, we overhear him talking seriously on the phone, mentioning an “intervention.” He is interrupted. “Paul,” whispers Esther, the only other employee still at work. “I saw something in the stockroom.”

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PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) dir. Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Stars: Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin

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PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996)

Steve Branch, Michael Moore, Christopher Byers. In May of 1993, the bodies of these three little boys were discovered in a river bed in the “Robin Hood Hills” of West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been hog-tied, brutally beaten, mutilated. But PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) is not the story of these three boys. Instead, it is the story of three young men: the “West Memphis Three,” accused of the child murders. On June 3, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (17), confessed to killing Branch, Moore, and Byers. Soon after, Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16) were also brought in and charged, despite their protestations of innocence.

I suspect that many different aspects of the case of the West Memphis Three bring people to this documentary. There is no shortage of fascinations. For one—most obviously—there’s the sinister and brutal nature of the crime. We are compelled to ask: What kind of person skins and mutilates a little boy? The tragedy heightens emotions throughout the documentary … in one disturbing scene, Chris Byers’ stepfather slowly talks the spectator through what it would be like for him to shoot each of the three suspects; Jessie Misskelley’s father’s girlfriend proclaims that if Jessie was guilty, she wouldn’t send him a nickel for cigarettes in prison; and, as if all of that weren’t enough, Damien Echols’ fiancée gives birth to their first child during the trial.

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FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981) dir. Steve Miner

Director: Steve Miner
Producer: Steve Miner
Writer: Ron Kurz
Starring: Amy Steel, John Furey, Warrington Gillette

TRIGGER WARNING: IMAGES CONTAIN BLOOD.

SPOILER ALERT: THE DEATHS OF SOME CHARACTERS ARE REVEALED IN THIS REVIEW.

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FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981)

When FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981) begins, we find ourselves in suburbia. A little boy’s feet scatter a rain puddle as we listen to him sing. His mother calls, and he leaves the frame. Then, two heavy, black boots step forward, in his place. The theme plays, but we already know: Jason (Warrington Gillette) is still out there. And how do we know? Because Alice (Adrienne King) told us at the end of the last film. Alice managed to survive the massacre of the last film, but her victory is short-lived: in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, sheltered in the apparent safety of the suburbs, she is first to die.

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FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) dir. Sean S. Cunningham

Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Producer: Sean. S. Cunningham
Writers: Sean S. Cunningham, Victor Miller
Stars: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Robbi Morgan

SPOILER ALERT: THE DEATHS OF SOME CHARACTERS ARE REVEALED IN THIS REVIEW. SCENES FROM THE FILM ARE DETAILED FOR ANALYSIS.

“… and the rain turns into blood … the blood washes away in little rivers …

… and then the sound stops.”

Marcie’s (Jeannine Taylor) premonition is a recurring dream she has—a performance of the subconscious, an omnipresent force in Sean S. Cunningham’s masterpiece. “It’s only a dream,” Marcie’s twinkle-eyed beau, Jack (Kevin Bacon), assures her, but as if to defy him, the skies open and rain pours. The sky darkens. Thunder pitches.

It is Friday, June 13th: Jason Voorhees’ birthday. And the storm has only just begun. Continue reading