While Optimism Vaccine is by no stretch of the imagination a horror site, several of our authors fancy themselves aficionados of the genre. So, with Halloween drawing near, we thought it would be fun to give you the reader several choices for your holiday viewing. What horrors await? As horror icon Jimmy Buffet might intone over the dissonant drone of steel drums: Disparate voices, disparate choices.
Before Dexter, there was Martin and his own bloodlust as a means of temporarily satiating his inward confusion of the world and his place in it. For instance, what's "the sexy stuff" all about and will he ever have the chance to participate in it? I was actually unfamiliar with George A. Romero's Martin until last Spring when it was shown in a film class, charting New Hollywood cinema, and has been a favorite horror film of mine since. I was immediately taken by the ingenious plotting and strange emphasis on social commentary. It's quite a nontraditional storyline, especially for a filmmaker who helped set the bar for traditional modern horror filmmaking.
Martin is a young guy who moves to Pittsburgh in hopes of discovering more about his penchant for painlessly killing women so he can lay naked with them while he cuts them to suck their blood. Basically, Martin is a vampire, but as he will tell you, he doesn't believe in all that magic hokey-pokey stuff. It is through this central self-discovery that Martin tackles the same archetype of the lonely young male navigating through his own social ineptitude that films like The Way Way Back, Donnie Darko, or Little Miss Sunshine do but without all the insufferable navel gazing.
The way Martin takes out his victims, with needles and razors instead of mystical teeth, suggests he can't be a "real" vampire. Exposure to the sun, crosses, and garlic aren't his Achilles heel. He seems to merely be a homegrown vampire, yet there are all these medieval flashbacks where he's being hunted that suggest he has existed as a vampire for ages. What are we to make of these? Maybe he has existed for centuries and his vampiric attributes adapt to the time. One night, he dresses up in a cape and fangs (Halloween style) just to scare Cuda (who's convinced Martin is the second coming of Nosferatu) in the park; "it's just a costume," Martin tells him and spits out the fake teeth. Is he a vampire? Does Martin even know if he's a vampire? Does it matter? What does it mean to be a vampire in urban America? Perhaps the film's most crowning achievement is how wonderfully ambiguous it is in posing these questions.
Optimism Vaccine's own Steve Cuff mentioned that Romero is always at his best when the film's most powerful images seem accidental. For instance, Night of the Living Dead's black protagonist is loaded with social commentary yet Romero has admitted to casting him based on convenience and price. I tend to agree; Martin as a whole doesn't seem to be a "calculated masterpiece" the way The Shining, for instance, does. Does it matter? No, and caring for director intentions would only be adhering to an antique auteurist reading anyhow. I'd take Martin over The Shining any day.
Though it might be difficult to find, if you watch one horror film, make it Martin.
Movie Film Quick Synopsis:
Michael is a boy child. Michael explores abandoned properties haunted by deceased hobos. Michael catches some sort of deceased hobo transmittable disease (not implying which one) and loses his hair. He begins to experience auditory hallucinations during his long, suffering nights spent alone, so he starts to apply the butter of peanuts to his pasty barren scalp to help pass the worthless moments that compile his life. Michael is forced into slave labor by an art teacher when he begins growing hairs back upon his awkward skull in excess quantities. In retaliation, Michael passes his deceased hobo transmittable disease onto his art teacher (not implying how). Michael lives to see the incarceration of his freshly diseased art teacher, and then returns to enjoying the meaninglessness of youth and the pleasures of a socially acceptable hair style.
I myself am a former boy child. I’ve clawed my way through the sandy beaches of time to become a somewhat questionable gentleman. I am constantly plagued by bouts of erratic hair losses and growths. Moreover, I am a man writer, haunted by the demons of assorted sandwich spreads. This movie film understood my plight. It crawled through my mucous ridden eye sockets and ground my frayed nerves raw with its metaphorical rusted safety razor.
It's safe to say that most modern horror films aren't genuinely scary for the average movie going adult. Despite this, horror films are more financially successful than ever without actually providing the one thing the genre tag “horror” implies. Instead, audiences are usually treated to a sensory overload of gross-out gore and jump scares meant to startle momentarily and then quickly fizzle out. Horror films are the cheap roadside hooker of cinema: pay your money and get your rocks off, but don't expect any foreplay or cuddling to heighten the experience. In many ways modern horror mirrors the juvenile vision of populist comedy apathetically dropped into theaters annually by the likes of Happy Madison productions, Friedberg & Seltzer, and the Wayans brothers. Why try when you can make millions recycling ideas that were never particularly good in the first place? I suppose the answer here is ‘because you actually give a shit’, but even that line has become increasingly blurred.
Horror directors have been raised on a steady diet of tired tropes and awful cliches, and their tireless dedication to referencing the way things are in horror films usually blinds them from recognizing what horror films could be. Unless of course you're Ti West, then things are a little different. West is a director who can see the beauty in trashy B-cinema, but is also critical of the genre he loves and is more than willing to transform it. There's no better example of this than West's 2009 horror classic, The House of the Devil. If you're only going to watch one horror film this Halloween, this is it.
Set in the 1980's, The House of the Devil follows Samantha, a strapped for cash college student who takes a bizarre babysitting job in order to cover the first month's rent on her new apartment. Soon after arriving, it becomes apparent that things aren't quite right at the house and Samantha finds herself struggling to escape from a satanic cult. The plot of movie is intentionally derivative of the dozens of “babysitter in peril” films of the era, while also playing to the satanic panic and cult paranoia that permeated the 1980's. The supporting cast, featuring genre icons like Dee Wallace, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov, further serves to contribute to West's authentic vision of the decade. What makes The House of the Devil stand out is how West masterfully evolves generic characters and plot points through deliberate pacing and a keen understanding of narrative structure.
Taking cues from Roman Polanski instead of the body count-centric slashers of the 80's, The House of the Devil does the unthinkable and actually develops characters that the audience cares about. As viewers we spend the entire first two acts getting to know Samantha; a character who's likeable, believable, and relatable. Horror films usually equate intimacy with an adolescent notion of sexuality. West forgoes a genre standard shower scene in favor of following the protagonist as she dances through the empty mansion listening to The Fixx on her Walkman. It's a little bit silly, and yet wildly effective. West doesn't use titillation to make us fall in love with Samantha. Early on we realize Samantha is intelligent and capable, but watching her dance makes her real.
Mr. Ulman, the primary antagonist is handled with equal care. Instead of hamming up the performance and sliding neatly into the role of charismatic cult leader, Tom Noonan portrays Ulman as disarmingly self-deprecating and apologetic. Mr. Ulman and his family are shrouded in mystery, but the subtlety of Noonan's performance and the lack of any outward hostility for the bulk of the film, gives the villain a terrifying “cult leader next door” quality.
As Samantha explores the house, the film's palatable sense of dread grows. It takes quite a bit of time before Samantha realizes something is definitely wrong, but the film carefully heightens audience anxiety by keeping us one step ahead of Samantha. While she playfully tries on eyeglasses and snoops around bedrooms, we're treated to ghastly images of a ritualistically murdered family just behind a nearby locked door. We know something terrible is about to happen to Samantha, and of course, we're powerless to stop it. When the tension finally comes to a head, The House of the Devil explodes in a brief climax of visual terror and ultra-violence. The film's final scenes are remarkably powerful not because they're necessarily shocking, but because they've earned the right to be there as the culmination of everything the film has built up to at that point. The House of the Devil is a genuinely terrifying movie. Ti West isn't just trying startle us; he understands that true horror builds slowly and organically, and that a film that makes an invested audience squirm anxiously for 2 hours will always be memorable.
The House of the Devil isn't just a damn good horror movie, it's a great movie, period. Fast food cinema might be satisfying in the short term, but it's quickly forgotten. If the average 80's slasher is cheeseburger off the dollar menu, then Ti West is slinging $15 gourmet grass fed beef and calling that mayonnaise on top aioli. The House of the Devil is a wonderful proof of concept film that shows genre fans and cinephiles alike that a trope-laden boilerplate plot can be elevated to evocative high art when the filmmaker is willing to be critical of a genre he or she loves and transform the movie into something better.
Young horror filmmakers take note: Stop worshiping your idols and start making better movies.
Unlike many of my fellow writers, I am a huge coward. I don’t watch a lot of horror, mostly because I’m afraid of being afraid. Not as bad as this guy, but close:
In fact, I have not seen most of the movies on this list (forgive me, dudes), and the last horror movie I saw was Mama, only because of the liberal use of low cut shirts in the trailer.
That said, I’m a sucker for classics. And there is no better classic than John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s about a shapeshifting alien in Antarctica, a statement that represents three of my favorite words. It’s a great October movie, because it gets you prepared for all the snow you’re about to see and for the parka swag you’re about to be inundated with.
I don’t actually watch it to ‘get in the mood for Halloween’. That job is for Mike Myers. I’m sure there have been theses written about how the themes of isolation and paranoia something something modern society, but I mostly watch it for Kurt Russell wielding a flamethrower and this kickass scene:
It has all the makings of a solid horror movie: great 1980s special effects, characters with varying levels of hubris about the clearly horrible monsters they’re up against, and slow realizations about what’s actually going on. Plus, Wilford Brimley goes totally crazy. And, for being a scary movie, not totally scary at all.
These make it great movie for sure, but what makes it a classic?
1. It got some pretty brutal reviews when it first came out, with The New York Times saying, “It looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80s.” Then, an awful prequel that came out in 2011. So hooray!
2. There are a ton of theories about the ending (spoiler alert, obviously):
Halloween is my favorite horror movie of all time, but I want to instead highlight a 1998 Invasion of the Body Snatchers rip off. The Faculty arrived a year after I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2, and a year before I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. It was a time of a renewed interest in teen slasher films, which might be why The Faculty is mostly an afterthought, or just remembered as being mediocre.
But what if I told you that Robert Rodriguez directed this film? That’s right, it was the man’s first feature after From Dusk Till Dawn. Perhaps you’ll be even more interested to know some of the supporting cast, which includes Selma Hayak, John Stewart, Famke Janssen, Usher and the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick. You’ve also got Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett as part of the main cast to look forward to.
Yes, the movie is available on Netflix instant right now.
The story is spooky paranoid fun set in an Ohio high school that takes The Breakfast Club and dashes in generous helpings of murder. The ‘everyone’s an outcast in their own way’ theme works perfectly with the Body Snatchers-esque tension of not knowing who to trust and how to escape the conformity of turning into one of “them” (no, not Them).
The plot moves slowly at first, allowing us to get to know each of the high schoolers that we’re going to follow. The pace also allows for the slow reveal of the eerie changes happening within the school. Tension mounts as danger oozes its way from the background until the main characters are thrown into pulse pounding survival mode. From there on out Rodriguez keeps the stakes high and scares plentiful as we wait to see whether the invading aliens succeed in their diabolical mission.
Besides the Body Snatchers parallels, the movie also pays homage to Carpenter’s The Thing and the famous blood test. Here, though, the students prove their humanity by snorting a homemade drug that is proven to do major damage to anybody that’s been taken over. It’s some nice subtle commentary on the problem of drugs in school, especially because the main ingredient in the ‘scat’ (as Hartnett calls it) is caffeine. Here, doping becomes a necessary precaution to both prove you haven’t turned, and identifies others you can trust. It’s just like real high school, where you and your friends try not to get caught by the teachers doing less than honor roll worthy activities. Except in this case the teachers won’t suspend you, they’ll insert an alien slug into your ear to take over your brain.
Everyone goes through their own drama during high school, and although it seems like the most earth-shattering events are occurring, most outsiders probably wouldn’t care at all. The Faculty looks at this drama through the eyes of the kids, though, and gives every audience member a reason to care- complete world takeover.
A positive message of uniqueness shines through as well. Most students want to blend in as much as possible during high school, but it turns out to be mostly outcasts that stay one step ahead of the invasion. Embracing uniqueness keeps you alive, kids, so go ahead and paint your fingernails black all you want. Your teachers might hate your angsty attitude, but it might just save your life one day.
Oh, to be a fly on the theatre wall in the fall of 1982, when moviegoers expecting to witness the latest exploits of Michael Myers were instead greeted with this ludicrous piece of cinema. It’s only fitting that a film about a wild Pagan plot to pull off the ultimate Halloween prank was essentially an elaborate trick on its viewers. It also happens to be a hell of a lot more entertaining than any other entry in the franchise spawned by John Carpenter’s horror classic.
Halloween III eschews The Shape for something a tad more… gonzo. The film revolves around a toymaker’s insidious plot to murder all the children of America with Halloween masks. You see, he’s inexplicably absconded with a section of Stonehenge and embedded slivers of said monolith in the masks. He then plans to activate the secret Stonehenge powers via broadcast television, which will cause any bemasked child’s head to collapse into a pile of crickets and rattlesnakes. It’s all very scientific. Also, he has an army of replicants.
Halloween III is transformed from irredeemable mess to glorious B-movie fun by the presence of Tom Atkins, who plays our drunken, mustachioed hero, Dr. Daniel Chalis. That’s pronounced chalice, which was a common name nowhere, at any point in the history of mankind. Atkins is well known among genre fans for his work in films like The Fog, Escape From New York, Maniac Cop, and Night of the Creeps; but this is his rare foray into leading man territory. He owns it. He’s wildly unbelievable as the love interest to the much, much, much younger Stacey Nelkin; but every last thing in this film is wildly unbelievable, so it just adds to the charm.
Chalis and Nelkin’s Ellie Grimbridge embark on a journey to the fictional town of Santa Mira, California, in search of Grimbridge’s father, who was scheduled to meet with the insidious Silver Shamrock toy company just prior to his disappearance. They engage in some top rate sleuthing (checking into a motel, touring the toy factory, sex), and manage to uncover that the dastardly Conal Cochran’s top secret “Final Processing” involves… Stonehenge. I’m willing to speculate that this script's final processing involved cocaine. Conal Cochran kidnaps everyone, and treats Dr. Chalis to a sneak peak of his master plan (Atkins’ reaction shots here are just the stuff of legend):
This raises a lot of questions:
How on earth did you transport this monolith to California?
Why would Stonehenge turn the heads of children into vermin?
Why are you doing any of this?
What in the hell kind of name is Conal Cochran?
Cochran doesn’t make any attempt to answer these burning questions in his big evil monologue, but it does give veteran character actor Dan O’Herlihy a wonderful opportunity to froth at the mouth a bit:
Chalis and Ellie escape Cochran’s clutches in nondescript fashion, and set out to alert the authorities of the doom that awaits America’s hapless youth. But wait! Ellie has been replaced by one of Cochran’s replicant minions! A horrendously staged and narratively superfluous struggle ensues!
Chalis survives and races to stop television. A simple phone call implausibly manages to result in two of the three major networks going off the air, but that third network…
This isn’t a John Carpenter film, but he was heavily involved in the production, so I suppose the Nihilistic ending is to be expected. Halloween III seems to have something to say about consumerism, but this film is too damn preposterous to effectively convey a message. It is, however, a blast. And that Silver Shamrock theme will crawl around in your head like so many snakes and crickets.
This film is a work, as I’m told from the editors of Optimism Vaccine, which mirrors the early late life story of Sir Amos Stalin. Much like Sir Stalin, the protagonist, Eddie Weinbauer, exists in a world of harshness and deceit: he is picked on by the local children, tricked to fall into a pool, and worse still, made to believe that dressing himself in the style of a male hobo dominatrix will garnish him respect and friendship in the community. Also, like Sir Stalin, he falls into a bad way after the death of an idol and ends up resurrecting a spawn of Satan. Unlike Amos, however, teen Eddie manages to create a rift in space-time in which the evil Sammie Curr can be thwarted for all eternity.
This film is of no consequence to me, aside from its connection to my subject of investigation, Amos Stalin. As such, I was locked in a small underground room, dug I’m told by Amos’ great-grandmother in order to instill discipline on the loosely moraled toddlers in her family. Much like the matriarchy of the family once did to Amos, the editors of Optimism Vaccine forced me to watch the film for a grueling six months; the small dirt-walled room closing in on me inch by inch as time crept by, and the cardboard walls began to cave in from the weight of the earth’s erosion around it. Against my will I was forced, after they’d deemed my physical and mental familiarity to the VHS tape was enough, to weigh in on its contents, as Adam put it, to further investigate this mystery. I will say, though, that after watching the film approximately 8,232 times, it began to grow on me.
The depth of the characters is unique, and Sir Eddie Weinbauer uses an uncanny ability to cry on command, lamenting throughout the film his inability to be part of the idolized group of teenaged youths that wear fashionable ties and acid washed jeans to school. Likewise, Sammie Curr is exquisite in his role as a Satanic Preacher and Dark Lord of the Hair Metal genre circa 1986. The film creates a unique situation for both effeminate young men, and overweight teenage girls wishing they were effeminate young men, to be placed into a riveting revenge scenario catered to a love of Satanic music. Sir Stalin would, I think, be proud to have his early life story told in such a way, and perhaps, if he can be found, we will have a chance to watch this film together; locked away in the same dark room, with only a series of buckets and a small hay mattress for comfort.
At some point during the halcyon days of my Kindergarten-aged adolescence, my parents dropped me off to be babysat by my Uncle Tony while they went out for a night of uninterrupted splendor. I had always looked forward to hanging out with Uncle Tony, mostly because he let me listen to Beatles records way past my bedtime. But on this particular evening, he introduced me to something else that probably accounts for my perennially anxious behavior 20-odd years later.
Milwaukee used to have this syndicated television station called Super 18, which would air movies every Saturday night. It tended to be pretty boilerplate stuff for the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, like broad slapstick vehicles that were at least 2 years old or some kind of inoffensive Hollywood blockbuster that anybody worth their salt already owned in their home video collection. At the time, I certainly did not MIND that. But on this particular evening, my Uncle Tony thought it would be a great idea to tune into Super 18 for the evening’s feature: 1986’s Poltergeist 2: The Other Side.
Seeing Poltergeist 2 at the age of 5 or 6, I had no context for what it was or how it fit into the popular culture canon. I had no prior knowledge of the original Poltergeist feature, nor could I have been aware of its cultural significance, for it was released months before I was born. Not knowing how or why Poltergeist 2 existed in the first place made it that much more creepy. For all I knew, Poltergeist 2 was this horrifying beast of a thing that seemingly came out of nowhere to simply scare the shit out of me. And for some reason, my Uncle Tony thought that I’d be ready for this trip.
Poltergeist 2 is a deeply flawed film, featuring a wildly inconsistent narrative and a heaping dose of clichéd sentimentality. Upon its release, it was heavily panned by critics and did not even do half of the business of its predecessor (although its box office returns were successful enough to warrant another sequel two years later). But what the film lacks in artistic integrity, it certainly makes up for in unusually terrifying imagery.
As many critics noted at the time of the film’s release, the greatest achievement of Poltergeist 2 lies in Julian Beck’s portrayal of Rev. Henry Kane, a 19th century “End of Times” cult leader who, apparently, was responsible for the deaths of all of those spooky corpses buried underneath the Freelings’ house in the original Poltergeist. Beck himself was an interesting character, having been a fixture of the New York art scene since at least the 1950s. He palled around- and possibly fornicated- with Allen Ginsberg and, most famously, co-founded the highly experimental and influential Living Theater. He also fancied himself as quite the hedonist. Anyway, Beck had been diagnosed with colon cancer well before being cast in Poltergeist 2 and passed away from the disease midway through production. Because of this tragedy, many planned scenes had to be scrapped at the last minute and much of the second and third act was re-written at the 11th hour. What is left of his performance is genuinely remarkable and transcends the film’s sub-par writing. He manages to exude pure creepiness and evil through subtle charm and restraint. A good example of this is in the following scene, which is excruciatingly simple, but also absolutely terrifying:
This about the last time the film manages to elicit genuine horror with class and dignity. Following this scene, the haunting goes way over the top in ways that are sometimes clever, but mostly desperate. Despite this, the scare tactics of the ghosts are at least quite creative:
Of course, that situation gets resolved rather quickly, but that imagery would easily stain a young and impressionable brain. I certainly never forgot about it the whole 6-years I wore my braces! But anyway, as the above scene illustrates, there’s a strong theme here involving a family struggling together. What’s most impressive about that family dynamic on screen is that the Freelings’ patriarch, played by Craig T. Nelson, manages to keep his shit together, despite the fact that he’s boozing it up throughout the whole picture. I supposed one of the side effects of surviving at least one massive haunting is alcoholism, but Mr. Freeling ain’t a Bud Light man, rather an aficionado of the hard stuff: tequila. Luckily for the audience, his alcoholism leads to one of the most creative ghost-possession scenes in cinema history: About a third of the way through the film, as Mr. Freeling finishes his bottle of Cuervo, he swallows the mescal worm. And of course, Rev. Henry Kane has possessed that worm! Soon, Mr. Freeling goes mad, not because he just drank an ENTIRE BOTTLE OF TEQUILA, but because he is possessed by Kane. In a very uncomfortable and slightly out-of-place sequence, he attempts to sexually assault his wife, until he’s suddenly overcome with major stomach cramps and…well, just watch:
Yeesch, you’d certainly need one hell of a tongue scraper and probably at least a pint of Listerine to get THAT taste out of your mouth, am I right?! Observing this scene now, I’m impressed with Craig T. Nelson’s thespian instincts, as he never ceases to clutch his gut throughout the process of his character vomiting up a FUCKING GHOST!!! But still, despite the ludicrous premise, this may very well be one of the most intensely horrific scenes I have ever seen committed to film because it preys upon two very common fears: One very real (vomiting) and the other fantasy (materialized-ghost-demon-thingies). I am surprised that this particular scene is not one of the more heavily discussed in the discourse of the horror genre.
The rest of the film features a few more spooks, most notably a chainsaw that comes to life and nearly rips the Freelings’ station wagon apart as they try to escape. Also, Carol Anne manages to get captured by the spirits, AGAIN, but she avoids going into the light, AGAIN, as her parents manage to cross-over and grab her just in time, with the aid of their ghost grandma in a scene that resembles more of an inoffensive LSD trip than an inter-dimensional battle of good vs. evil. Poltergeist 2 cannot be recommended in favor of its far superior predecessor, but it’s certainly worth a gander for the Halloween season. I’ll be damned if its bloated, but often interesting, imagery still doesn’t haunt me to this day.
 His death has been linked to the pathetic “Poltergeist Curse,” a Hollywood superstition that has the effect of exploiting the tragic deaths of several actors and crew members who died following or during the Poltergeist films’ production (most notably, the young Heather O’Rourke, who plays Carol Anne, the trilogy’s emotional centerpiece). The alleged “curse” merely helps to promote the trilogy on the backend. It’s a sickening marketing tactic that could be attached to just about any other movie, for example: Was the Planes, Trains & Automobiles production cursed, because of the premature deaths of John Candy and John Hughes? What about the fact that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon died within months of each other shortly after the release of Odd Couple 2? Must be a curse…