When Art Horror Isn’t Scary

This October I enthusiastically got into the spirit of the holidays by catching up on highly-acclaimed art horror films that have been released within the last decade. These included “The Babadook” (2014), “It Follows” (2015) and “The Witch” (2015). But there was one problem: these scary movies weren’t really that scary. Disappointed by this revelation, I looked up movie reviews of these films and was surprised to find out they were all belittled as “not scary” by people on the Internet when they first came out. It made me wonder what  I expected from scary movies in the first place that made these otherwise excellent films disappoint me.

The main issue was jump scares. I had always considered myself a refined movie goer who could stand the lengthy plot development that puts my parents to sleep. But the 90 minutes that these three films clock in at don’t live up to the anticipation I had when I started watching them. In all three cases, we are given a horrific illustration of the antagonist’s evil powers right at the beginning that captures your attention immediately. But little information about these supernatural creatures is then given. The main characters are then left to debate about whether or not these monsters even exist as they confront fate and encounter these evil forces. This puts the viewer in an awkward position. We see the witch use baby Samuel for his blood. We see the Babadook worm his way inside the mother’s body. We see “it”, in a shocking turn of events, follow.

And yet the movie suffers from not letting the monster at the center breathe life into the plot by rearing their ugly head. You cannot deny how real and scary the threat posed by the antagonists in these films are. You know that the main characters are wrong to shake it off. And yet their false hopes that nothing is out of the ordinary carries weight. They have not yet encountered their demons head on, and since we see what they see we can understand why they would not consider the possibility they are being haunting by the supernatural. By not including jump scares to make the antagonists’ constant threat palpable, these movies force you to focus on the character development as the conflict fueling the plot comes to a climax.

The antagonist always returns at the end of the film, proving the dread that I felt the entire time I was watching these movies was valid. This confrontation at the end allows for the protagonist to unlock their true power, concluding with the main characters overcoming obstacles in making peace with their flaws that sparked the antagonists’ haunting in the first place. Thomasin in “The Witch” dives in to her lack of faith, only to become capable of supporting herself when her struggling family is unable to. The mother and son in “The Babadook” learn to coexist with the grief manifested in the Babadook. Jaime brazenly ignores “it” following her at the end of “It Follows” when she walks with her arms linked with Paul, demonstrating a sense of strength that comes from feeling supported by people who care about you. These endings may have left me unsatisfied as a horror fan. What’s the point of spending the entire movie with the protagonists defending themselves from the monsters if they are unsuccessful anyway? And yet by making the plots of these horror movies more nuanced, it allows film to depict deeply human emotions in a creative way.

I support the trend of these art horror films resisting cheap scares to further develop their characters and their struggles instead. While it may take away from the visceral roller coaster of emotions you have while watching a horror movie, the quieter, more intimate moments of human emotion that are being tapped into make it worth it.

Bonding through Bad Movies

Watching TV and movies is a good way to bond with friends. Many of my friendships originally began because we shared an enthusiasm for a particular show—I still have go-to friends to text when I watch a new show that I love. But let’s be honest: when it comes to being close friends with someone, you need to have more than just a couple shows you watch in common. To take that final step to becoming close friends, you have to talk about something other than the newest episode of Jane the Virgin. (That said, the season premiere of Jane the Virgin, which aired yesterday, was emotional and hilarious, and I’ll love anyone who watches that show.)

I went on a ‘retreat’ this past weekend with a few of my friends for fall break. We stayed a night at my friend Christian’s parents’ cabin on Sage Lake. There may have been some drinking going on—not that I partook, obviously, since I won’t be of legal drinking age for another two months. But in terms of actual activities, we played some card games, played a game of sardines, and mostly just hung around by the lake or in the cabin. It was definitely a fun way to spend a day, with lots of good company.

Toward the end of the night, we settled down to watch a movie. The movie was largely fun—it was Avalanche Sharks, one of the terrible Syfy schlocky movies about poorly rendered sharks terrorizing civilization. (One of my chief complaints was that there weren’t enough sharks! There should’ve been more gore! At least we got to hear the phrase “it’s spring break” uttered 30 times.) I’m of the firm opinion that if you’re aiming to bond with friends, it’s much more fun to watch a shitty movie than to watch a good one. A couple people wanted to watch Blue Velvet, which I’ve been meaning to see, but on a night when we’re supposed to be having a bunch of fun, is watching a quality neo-noir drama really what we want?

Some of my best experiences with watching movies have been watching dumb shit. My brother and I regularly quote Birdemic, the famously terrible amateur movie about a bird attack. I still smile remembering the night in high school when I got together with some friends and watched Mega Shark Versus Crocasaurus. (We also watched Paranormal Activity 3 that night, but high-quality horror movies might be the exception to the ‘good quality = bad for fun’ rule.) The thing is, most good movies you can watch anytime. You don’t need to be with friends to do it. In fact, I’d probably prefer to watch Blue Velvet alone; it’d probably be more impactful that way. When I’m with friends, on a night kind of meant for bonding, I don’t just want to check off something on my movie list. I want to do something fun.

Maybe that’s why I started to get bored after Avalanche Sharks, when we decided to just watch some TV on Netflix. I get it. It’s a comforting default to put on an episode of Parks & Rec or 30 Rock, especially when everyone is tired. But one of my few disappointments of the retreat was that we started to fall back on TV when we could’ve made more of an effort to connect. Then again, maybe a trip where the explicit purpose is to ‘bond’ is a little forced from the beginning.

I’ve just learned more and more recently that most good TV and good movies I prefer to watch alone. There are no variables—I don’t have to deal with possible spoiler sources, or the slight self-consciousness that prevents me from really physically reacting the same way I might alone. (For example, I actually said ‘what the fuck’ many times when I was alone watching Dogtooth. If I’d watched that with a friend, I probably would’ve said the same thing, but more for their benefit, for the social aspect, than as a genuine reaction.) I don’t have to have my opinion influenced by someone else and what they might be thinking. I don’t have to get pulled out of the experience by some annoying theatergoer who’s laughing a little too hard, or a crying baby, or a guy who’s pointing out the logistical issues in the third act of Finding Dory. I can react the way I want to.

So yeah, there are a lot of reasons I don’t usually like watching high-quality movies and TV with friends. It’s usually better to just pop in something stupid. Sure, it’s sometimes fun to watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia when I hang out with friends from home. But every time I’ve watched Caillou, I’ve had a much more memorable time.

Star Wars, Nostalgia, and Creativity

So, okay, let’s be real for a hot second: I loved the new Star Wars movie. Even though I will forever be mad that I didn’t see it at midnight, I loved this movie with a passion. I can prove it to you too. I saw it the weekend it came out with some friends while I was still in Ann Arbor…then I saw it a week and a half later, with my best friend back in Houston. And then when my mom wanted to go see it, I told her we should go again. I saw this movie three times. And if you asked me to go this weekend I’d just ask what time?

I know this isn’t a minority opinion. I was honestly glad that I saw it opening weekend because that meant that I didn’t have to wait until Monday, when I was back in Houston, to read/watch/listen to/breathe any spoilers. I didn’t even rewatch the trailer before going to see it – the last time I’d seen the trailer was back in November, when it first came out, and a lot of finals had happened between then and the time I’d seen it. I wanted to come in with a fresh experience.

But even though I loved it, I’m not sure if that’s what I got. When we walked out of the theatre my friend pointed out how the plot was the same as the plot for A New Hope: they blew up a big gun. This sentiment was echoed in other posts I read, including a podcast (with major spoilers) by some of my favorite YouTubers, Funhaus, where James said he was reserving judgement on the new franchise as a whole for that very reason.

Nostalgia, ironically, isn’t an abstract concept anymore, but a business, and a booming one at that. People are shelling out money for reboots and sequels of their favorite shows and movies. And they do well, too, and the public goes crazy for them. One recent example that’s been all over the entertainment news sphere is the new Full House reboot on Netflix, duly named Fuller House.

In a blog post a couple of years ago, I wrote an open letter to Pixar about how excited I was for the second The Incredibles movie because, of course, I freaking love that movie, but also a wariness – Pixar has been devoting a lot of its time and resources to sequels that I don’t think merit the work put in. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted with this summer’s Inside Out, but they still have sequels slated for release in the coming years (Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, The Incredibles 2). Let’s just hope Inside Out doesn’t turn into Inside Out 2  in 2018.

I definitely think that J.J. Abrams made the right decision when it came to the plot. The original trilogy, as well as parts of the newer trilogy, are about archetypes, time, and the endless circle. It is, of course, a family story, and Abrams kept it that way, if only because he borrowed a lot from the original trilogy. I’m so excited to see where our new characters go – especially Finn and Rey – and I think the first movie did its job in setting them up for the next two movies.

But as a writer, and one that values creativity over her own fangirl instincts, I have to ask at what cost did he do it?

Don’t take this the wrong way – I saw the movie three times for crying out loud – and every time I love discovering something new that I didn’t notice before. But I also want to be openly, honestly critical of an already fantastic movie so that it can become an even better one that will go down forever in the pages of film history.

So while we not-so-patiently wait for the next movie, may the force be with you (or does the force not really work that way?).

Saying Goodbye

Although there’s many things that I could write about this week for my post, and I went through all of them in my head, trust me, my heart wasn’t in any of them. Why? Because today, I feel like I lost a friend.

For those of you that don’t know, Alan Rickman passed away today at the age of 69. If you don’t know Alan Rickman, though I will be very surprised if you don’t, he is known for his iconic roles in Die Hard, Love Actually, Robin Hood (yes, the terrible one with Kevin Costner), and, the one closest to my heart, Severus Snape in all of the Harry Potter movies.

When I was younger and watching Harry Potter for the first time, I had no idea who Alan Rickman was. But when I read the books, I realized that he was the embodiment of Snape, straight down to the hair and nose. He was just menacing, and you knew it, and yet for all his one-dimensionality, you knew Snape wasn’t all bad. That was Alan Rickman, and his brilliant acting.

Only when I got older did I realize this, though, and the respect he was given. I learned about Dame Maggie Smith, and I looked up to these figures, as I was dreaming of becoming an actor, and realizing that the roles these people played were the ones I wanted to play. I respected them, and I’d even say I loved them.

I still remember when I went and saw the last Harry Potter movie at midnight. It was the end of an era for me, and for millions of other teenagers. But I didn’t cry about it, because while it was an end, I knew the books and the movies would always be there for me, just as they had in the past. I knew I might cry during the movie, but not for that.

Instead, when I saw Snape curled around Lily, crying himself, unable to face the truth, I started crying as well. I’m not even that big of a fan of Snape, but that loss, that pain – you could see it all. And that was Rickman. That was what he made people felt.

There comes a time when you have to let go of something when you’re in a fandom. That’s what happens when you become a fan of something. You watch it, you read it, you hold it dear, and when it’s gone, you mourn it. And today, we mourn Alan Rickman.

Rest in Peace, Alan. Always.

How Not To Write An Ending

So last night, sitting on the couch with my roommate roaming Netflix, we decided to watch a movie called Stuck in Love, a movie directed by Josh Boone of The Fault in Our Stars fame. Now bear with me for a second, because this isn’t a review, but it’s going to sound like one for a minute. I’d been dying to watch it, and it was an hour and a half, the time my roommate had until she had to Skype with her best friend to watch The Bachelor (don’t even get me started on The Bachelor), so we decided to watch it – or, rather, I did, since she had already seen it.

No surprise, I absolutely loved it. Fantastic writing (for the most part – I’ll get to that), fantastic acting, and really inventive and evocative directing. I even noticed the directing. That means this movie is pretty dang good. But what really struck me was it’s simplistic setting and characters.

For those who aren’t aware, as it wasn’t a huge film, the story follows a family of three, comprised of a divorced father and his two children, one a daughter in college, another an angsty high schooler, in addition to the bits and pieces from the ex-wife, happily married for three years to some other man. Typical indie fair, but interestingly, all three of the main characters are writers. The father, Bill, is a famous author, with multiple books published and a solid career; the daughter, Sam, is studying creative writing at school while also landing a publishing deal for her first novel, however not under her own name; the son, Rusty is still an aspiring writer, but clearly has talent needing to be developed. He worships Stephen King and writes mystery/thrillers, and she writes what seems to be realistic fiction, possibly for young adults.

This seems to be the bond they all share – that they all write, that they all have a writer’s mind, cultivated by their father. At one point, Rusty’s stepfather mutters that it’s stupid that the kids keep journals and that the father pays them for it in place of them getting a job. Deeply offended, Rusty fights back and then leaves the room, and to be honest, I was with him. Who hasn’t kept a journal at some point?

But, really, the story follows the three in their quest to find love…or, actually, their troubles in love. And for someone who tends to write fiction centered around, or at least concerning love, in all its different forms, I found this a striking and compelling take on love. I deeply identified with this movie, even though “Advanced Creative Fiction” would never be a lecture and you’d most definitely know everyone in your class, an inaccuracy I found to be really strange given the rest of the material in the movie. I also marveled at the fantastic writing in itself. It was kind of meta, realizing that a movie about writing was so well written, clearly someone who knew what he was doing.

I thought this until I saw the ending in the movie. Each character had their own conflict relating to love, and for Bill, it was coming to terms with his ex-wife cheating and ultimately leaving him. In an intimate and unexpected moment, he tells Sam that when she was little, he left her mom for some other woman, but for only six months. He came back to her, and he accepted her, and all she asked in return was for him to wait for her if she made a similar, stupid mistake. After three years, he still waits for her, though throughout the movie different people, including his ex-wife, try and convince him otherwise.

As all the other storylines wrapped up, one year from the start of the movie, on Thanksgiving, Bill’s storyline was unfinished. It didn’t feel that way, though, because coming to terms with a loss of love cannot be tied up like the rest of the movie. The true payoff for his honesty with his daughter was her coming to terms with the fact that her mom didn’t just hurt her father, but that they had hurt each other. She had idolized her father and hated her mother for hurting him, and through Bill’s honesty realized her idolization – but not love – had been misplaced, and her anger had been wrong. Sam’s forgiveness of her mother was Bill’s ending storyline too, since he will still struggle with missing his wife.

Or, that is what I thought, until the last scene, at Thanksgiving. Slapped at the end of the movie, there’s a knock at the door right before they start to eat. Who could it be? Please don’t let it be the mother. I wish I had been wrong.

Bill’s ex-wife comes, crying, but not heavily, and embraces him. He hurriedly sets a place for her, and she takes it. Everyone seems truly happy…except me.

For one, it’s incredibly cheesy, which makes it unrealistic. The entire movie I was struck by how realistic the movie made the unrealistic. The lines were a bit pretentious, but why wouldn’t they be, coming from a family of writers? Bill was a bit eccentric, but not anything too drastic, and why would he? He’s a writer. And then there’s the whole college thing, but that’s so minor I would hardly call it unrealistic. But this ending? It seemed like Bill picked up his pen and said “I want this ending, so I’m going to write it this way.”

I was honestly surprised and disappointed that the story had to end this way. It could have ended right before the last scene, and I would have found the ending to be satisfied. A motif throughout the film was Bill waiting for his wife by setting a place for her, but at this Thanksgiving, he set the place for her, then took it away, as he started to see how foolish he was. But then he added it again, because Sam brought her boyfriend – she learned how to love, a direct antithesis to Bill, who learns how to let love go.

I could also envision her coming to Thanksgiving, but with her husband. The movie explored different kinds of love – romantic, companionate, parental, sexual, unconditional – and the addition of the mother, happy and with both her families, would have rounded out the story’s themes nicely. Because not all love is romantic, her addition at the table would have symbolized her commitment to love her ex-husband and her children as a family, even while she does not romantically love her ex-husband anymore.

Obviously, I enjoyed the film, but I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens ending the way it did (post forthcoming, obviously), as well as reading Hannah’s post from last night about the alternate ending for Pride and Prejudice (which I had NO IDEA about and now my mind is blown). So I’m not sure if I hate the movie because I hate the cheesy ending, or I love the movie but will pretend the ending doesn’t exist? I really don’t know what to do with it, and I definitely don’t understand how a well-written, innovative movie could have such an oversight, even it comes from studio executives or producers who wanted their way.

Either way, I’m puzzled, but it’s a good way to learn, as a writer…how not to end your movie.

No Better Way To Spend My Thursday Night

Tonight, for the fourth year in a row, I’ll be sitting in a theatre watching an installment of The Hunger Games. After three years, it’s time to say goodbye. I still remember the first time that I went, seeing the first movie with my two best friends from high school. It was an amazing night, and happened to be one of my friends’ birthday, and we were all ecstatic – we’d all read the books, and this adaptation looked amazing.

Midnight movies have a special place in my heart. I think my first midnight movie was The Dark Knight, when I was 13 or 14 years old. My aunt took me and my cousin on a whim, and I ended up struggling to stay awake, since I had been up all day. But it was an exciting night – when Lieutenant Gordon came out of the back of the van, proving that he was alive, not dead, the entire theatre erupted in applause. A couple of years later, I saw both Twilight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at midnight (I refused to choose between them – both guilty pleasures in my opinion) – theatres filled with hundreds of teen girls, all buzzing thirty minutes or an hour before the show, and I soaked it all in.

Now, I’m a bit older, and see more sophisticated things, read: Rocky Horror Picture Show, I still remember what it was like to be in high school, to be up at midnight, and to be part of a community that cares about something.

The tragedy of today, though, is that nothing really happens at midnight. Perhaps the midnight movie was more of a resurgence rather than just something I didn’t know about till I was older, but for movie executives, these nights are a way to make oodles of money. Which is kind of sad, because when I see Mockingjay at 11:15 tonight, I know, deep down, I shouldn’t be seeing it until midnight, and that the theatre I’m at has been showing Mockingjay since 7:30 earlier tonight. That hardly seems fair – the movie’s release date isn’t until 12:01 tonight, officially.

However, I will say that the extra movie times allow thousands of people to see the movie, when a lot of them would have been turned away had the theatre limited the release to only 12:01.

No matter what, midnight movies are something I love, and will always love. It’s one of the most unique ways you can see a movie, when going to a theatre is at an all time low.

So I challenge you, even if it’s not tonight with The Hunger Games, or in a month with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to go see a midnight movie with your friends. Go to the State, go to Rave, go anywhere.

I honestly couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Thursday night. Can you?