The List: August 2019

Chaw (2009, Jeong-won Shin, South Korea)

I wrote about it here!

Carriers (2009, David Pastor & Àlex Pastor, USA)

Carriers is a post-pandemic apocalypse movie about a group of survivors navigating the highways of what remains of the US. It’s unrelenting in its bleakness. It teaches you that only assholes survive and then dares you to care for its protagonists. 

One of my takes that I keep under a heat lamp is that often, zombie movies don’t need zombies to do what they’re trying to do, which is often show that humanity is petty and cruel. In that way, this feels like a zombie movie without the zombies, which I’ve kind of been asking for. That’s not giving the movie enough credit though: not only does it show its survivors as petty and cruel, but they’re scared and caring, hopeless and hopeful, methodical and indulgent, and in love. 

Splice (2009, Vincenzo Natali, Canada)

A scifi horror about two geneticists who create a human-animal hybrid and raise it as a child. Throughout the movie the two take on various parenting roles and relationships with their monster daughter and it all goes to some dark places. 

I’ve had a hard time writing down any thoughts about this movie, and I think it’s because there was something preventing me from really falling into it. It felt very top-down, if that makes sense. The characters felt molded by the script rather than emerging organically; the monster felt more defined by what we would see as monstrous, rather than being herself, personally and biologically. I felt very distant from her, and that’s the biggest disappointment for me. That doesn’t take away the fact that the movie really went into some new places and showed that there’s a lot more out there for horror. 

Stir of Echoes (1999, David Koepp, USA)

I saw this when it came out in theaters, and at the time it was easy to write off as a copycat of The Sixth Sense. Except with digging. I’m so happy I saw it again, because it’s such a fun one. In the wake of the 90s teen-slasher revival, this movie fits right in with The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch as a supernatural horror that lets its cast and setting carry the weight in spooking you. 

The movie has its dark and scary moments, but for the most part it’s playful and pokes fun at Tom’s (Kevin Bacon) masculinity. He’s a guy who feels destined for something greater than his middle-class job, afraid of being ordinary. He’s got this assumption that he’s entitled to something interesting, and his family is not it; when he learns Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) is pregnant, he seems to only dread the added inconvenience a new baby will bring. When the supernatural stuff starts happening, he tells her it’s the only interesting things that’s ever happened to him. 

The Plumber (1979, Peter Weir, Australia)

A TV movie by Peter Weir (Master and Commander, The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society) about a malicious tradesman inserting himself into the home and life of an academic couple. From the poster, I thought this screamed slasher, but couldn’t be further from it. The charismatic and unnerving plumber is a trickster, crossing boundaries and tearing them down—throughout the movie his work of tearing open walls and sabotaging pipes serves as a metaphor for exposing the way the middle-class couple sets themselves above mere tradesmen and the way they construct gender roles of their household. 

First Man into Space (1959, Robert Day, UK)

A scifi horror about an astronaut who returns from space and becomes a monster. Produced in the UK and filmed in the US, it still had that Hays-Code tameness feel to it on the horror end; however, it still kept the tension up, especially in the opening scenes, and I liked its sympathy for the monster. 

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959, Nobuo Nakagawa, Japan)

Classic Japanese vengeful ghost movie with gruesome effects and striking lighting effects echo back to the story’s theatrical origins. This is the first incarnation of this story that I’ve seen, but I’ve been reading about its many adaptations in kabuki and film. 

The List: July 2019

The Oblong Box (1969, Gordon Hessler, UK)

While it’s a loose adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, it feels built with very Poe-like tropes, such as premature burial, faked deaths, guilt, blackmail, revenge, and murder. Vincent Price has a strong performance, but Christopher Lee is woefully underused. 

The Toxic Avenger Part II & The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie (1989, Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, USA)

Troma’s raunchy superhero got a couple sequels. What charm I found in the first movie is missing from these, leaving just the racist, ableist, and transphobic humor. They’re gross and offensive, and that’s entirely the point of them; if these are your jam, you probably already know it. 

Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster, USA)

Midsommar is indebted to a lot of different genres, but feels like something wholly new. The spectacular daylit scenery is beautiful and pressed all the way to harshness, while Florence Pugh’s performance was cathartic and heart wrenching. The direction stretches the movie between dread, shocking violence, and humor, constantly building tension to a fever pitch. This movie is a lot of things to a lot of people, from what I’ve been reading since its release; I was struck hard enough by its fairy-tale like descent into, and processing of, grief. 

I think for a lot of movies, the first viewing is for feeling it; subsequent viewings are for analyzing it. For first-viewing feelings, this movie is a fucking fire hose. I really can’t wait to see it again.

4D Man (1959, Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., USA)

A sci-fi in which a man becomes able to pass through materials and later starts murdering people. Much of the story is carried by the romantic drama between the three main characters. 

The director followed this with The Blob

Shark Attack (1999, Bob Misiorowski, USA)

Made-for-tv movie in which scientists investigate aggressive sharks off the South African coast. It’s very cheap looking, with footage of sharks used in the attacks. But I thought it put a little more effort into its story than just “animal attacks.” 

The Collector (2009, Marcus Dunstan, USA)

Originally written as a Saw franchise installment, this sits at the intersection of slasher and torture, putting a masked villain behind the gruesome violence. It works very well on a visceral level—it’s claustrophobic, exciting, and graphic. And really, that’s all this movie needs to be. I didn’t like the characters, I thought the pacing was disjointed and hard to follow, and it had scenes I absolutely hated. I think this movie is exactly what it wants to be. 

The Day Time Ended (1979, John ‘Bud’ Cardos, USA)

Aliens invade a family’s secluded desert ranch, sending them through space and time. The B-movie feel is obvious, which I’m sure causes people to write it off as bad. For me it has some memorable highlights: the stop-motion aliens are a treat and the ending feels bold in its optimism. I’m not going to recommend everyone watch it, but I’m glad I did. 

The Dead Pit (1989, Brett Leonard, USA)

A woman with amnesia is brought to an asylum where a mad scientist’s zombie horde is unleashed. In addition to the standard 80s fare, this movie delivers an eerie setting and a story that goes a few steps beyond what you’d expect: themes of family, religion, and trauma all rising up from the past to devour the protagonist make her a deeper and more relatable character. 

Pet Sematary (2019, Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer, USA)

The 2019 version of the Stephen King story about a cemetery that brings the dead back to life, which was also made into a movie in 1989 by Mary Lambert. 

The cast is easily the strongest part of the movie, but I felt like they weren’t given enough space to really shine. Scenes had very little time to breathe and felt tightly cut around rapid-fire lines. It felt nowhere as lived-in as Lambert’s. It changed some things around, but without much significance by the end. Without being specific, the core of the story about the dismantling of the nuclear family and the burden of the father to fix it—which feels regressive and not something the movie is trying to satirize, but taking for granted—remains unchanged.  

I may not be much of a fan of the 2019 version, but I don’t think it matters whether I like it. The novel and 1989 movie were a couple of the most chilling and memorable horror stories when I encountered them when I was a preteen. The idea of an evil cemetery for children’s pets is all any adaptation needs; if this modern version gets young people hooked on horror the way the 1989 did for me, then I celebrate it. 

Hidden (2009, Pål Øie, Norway)

A moody, atmospheric small-town mystery about a man returning to his home and confronting his past. The movie excels in its mood and setting, from the gloomy house and foggy woods to the spooky hotel. The mystery is enough to keep things moving, but wasn’t a huge draw for me. 

Horror movies that focus on the mood and psychologic end of things feel like an exception during the late 2000s, and this one feels like is bridges a gap between Twin Peaks and modern Scandinavian mysteries. 

Across the Hall (2009, Alex Merkin, USA)

This is a thriller contained in a hotel room in which a man’s friend tries to talk him out of murdering his girlfriend, who he has discovered is cheating on him. The story is nonlinear, slowly revealing the entire picture. 

The movie’s style was the big draw for me; the filmmakers made the hotel feel timeless and venerated in all its grimy decor and past. The acting, direction, and editing made good use of the nonlinear story in a way that helped the pacing and tension feel comfortable and allowed me to be absorbed in the emotions of each scene, rather than trying to keep up. This also helped take the weight off the plot, because there were times when characters’ motivations weren’t clear or when things just felt too convenient and up to chance. 

This movie’s inclusion on the list is odd. By any definition, I wouldn’t call it horror. I wouldn’t even call it adjacent or celebratory. I’m not quite sure how it got included in the first place—maybe it got included in IMDb’s search—but I enjoyed it enough to keep it in there. 

That said, I think it’s a great movie and I’m glad I watched it. Brittany Murphy died shortly after its release, and she’s fantastic in this. She flirts with the fourth wall with precise delivery of sarcasm and self-awareness. 

A Feral Hog Double Feature with BOAR and CHAW

If you live anywhere near twitter, then you’ve been reading about feral hogs lately.

A tweet from @WillieMcNabb from August 4, 2019, that says "Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?"
A tweet from @WillieMcNabb from August 4, 2019, that says “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”

Every meme we’ve ever known has been refitted with feral hogs. With such a saturation, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to watch 2009’s Chaw, from Korea. I had another killer hog movie in my watchlist as well: 2017’s Boar from Australia.

The poster for Boar.
The poster for Boar.

Boar‘s strength was its delightful cast and the screentime it devotes to letting them banter and hang out with families and communities. This human half made the movie enjoyable, when it otherwise would have been unremarkable. The action and monster scenes were devoid of sense of space, which was a pity as they didn’t rely wholly on CGI for the monster, but it still felt like it didn’t exist with the characters on screen.

The poster for Chaw.
The poster for Chaw.

Chaw is something special. Like Boar, it gives a lot more screentime to the human stuff than any typical monster movie, but in a way that makes it a different movie. What makes it stand out is how the human scenes are filmed like American comedies: shots look like they’re out of The Office, with the handheld camera panning to catch peoples’ reactions, while other scenes look like sitcoms.

A shot from Chaw in which a farmer glares offscreen, in a shot that looks like it could have come from any number of western comedies from the 2000s.
A shot from Chaw in which a farmer glares offscreen, in a shot that looks like it could have come from any number of western comedies from the 2000s.
The old hunter talks to the detective in a restaurant in Chaw; this scene sure looks to me like a 90s sitcom or soap.
The old hunter talks to the detective in a restaurant in Chaw; this scene sure looks to me like a 90s sitcom or soap.
The village elder discusses the boar crisis with the police. The hand-held camera in this scene was, again, evocative of The Office and similar shows.
The village elder discusses the boar crisis with the police. The hand-held camera in this scene was, again, evocative of The Office and similar shows.

These scenes that are filmed like comedies are usually serious, while the action and monster scenes have the physical humor and slapstick I’ve learned to expect from Korean horror. The whole movie is lowkey hilarious, with some real good laughs. If there are any Korean cultural cues from these comedy shots, I’m way too outside of Korean culture to be aware of them. (Or it could be that this camerawork isn’t particularly western, and that I’ve just built my own associations here.)

The title, according to IMDb trivia, is a transliteration for a dialectal word for trap. That gels in obvious ways with the hunters chasing the boar, but there are also themes through of people being trapped in different parts of life: careers, marriages, cities, villages. It’s all tied up in a story of a cop being transferred to a village steeped in its history of ecological damage and poaching; for much of the movie, the boar attacks feel incidental to this.

A boar piglet give the camera side-eye in Chaw's closing shot.
A boar piglet give the camera side-eye in Chaw‘s closing shot.

The List: June 2019 Catchup

The Highlights

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, Werner Herzog, West Germany)

So beautiful and so creepy. Klaus Kinski is from another worldwhich makes this a fitting tribute to Max Schreck’s superlative performance. As a remake, this movie achieves the best possible result: making me love both movies more.

Nang Nak (1999, Nonzee Nimibutr, Thailand)

Tragic ghostly romance. Beautifully realized in its 19th-century Thailand setting.

Puppetmaster (1989, David Schmoeller, USA)

Leech lady alone puts this movie in the “highlights” section, but the rest of the movie does my girl justice.

Tell Me Something (1999, Yun-hyeon Jang, South Korea)

A detective follows gory murders through dark and rainy streets while trying to connect with the woman connected to all the victims. It’s an intricate mystery in which the scares and emotional heft carry the story forward, while burying fleeting clues to the grittier details throughout. There’s a lot to be digested in multiple viewings.

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009, Tom Six, The Netherlands)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch this, and I don’t have to watch anything I don’t want to! However, I also felt that it got enough attention to make it an important part of 2009; it’s also one of the flagship “torture porn” movies, which is arguably the biggest trend in 2000s horror. And I’ll admit to a morbid curiosity. But what sealed it was when a reviewer I like sang its praises. At that moment I was like, god dammit…

I’m glad I didn’t kid myself into thinking I was going to enjoy it, because it is not an enjoyable movie (plenty of movies aren’t meant to be). I appreciate its self awareness, being a movie about the kind of sick fuck who would make a movie like this, drawing a straight line between the director and mad scientist. Tom Six definitely knew what he was doing with it.

The Mummy (1999, Stephen Sommers, USA)

I knew I needed a palate cleanser after Human Centipede, so I queued up the Brendan Fraser classic. Not much to say about it… While maybe only adjacent to horror, it’s still part of the legacy of mummy movies and its visuals and scares stand on their own. Still as fun as ever.

The Rest

  • The Return of Swamp Thing (1989, Jim Wynorski, USA)
  • Lake Placid (1999, Steve Miner, USA)
  • Survival of the Dead (2009, George A. Romero, USA)
  • Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959, Bernard L. Kowalski, USA)
  • The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson, UK)
  • The Church (1989, Michele Soavi, Italy)
  • Savage Weekend (1979, David Paulsen, USA)

The List: May 2019 Catchup

The Final Destination (2009, David R. Ellis, USA)

(This is #4.) Undoubtedly the weakest of the five Final Destinations, but still sits comfortably in the series as pure deathly spectacle. Same director as #2, meaning both have the same self-reference, fake-outs, and the Rubiest Goldbergiest deaths. (#1 and #3 are the more serious and effective ones, and #5 takes all the best elements from the previous four and runs a victory lap.)

Operation Pink Squad 2 (1989, Jeffrey Lau, Hong Kong)

A fun and raunchy ensemble comedy about four policewomen going undercover in a haunted apartment building.

Gemini (2009, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Japan)

I haven’t looked into this movie since I watched it, and what remains is a chaotic mess of surreal ghosts and amorphous events on a solid backbone of duality. My lasting impression probably isn’t representative of the movie itself, and this is mostly a note to myself to watch this again and read up on it.

Grace (2009, Paul Solet, USA)

It seems like such a simple premise for a horror movie: an infant needs to feed on blood. A bottle of blood. Fly paper hanging like mobiles. Perfect images from an excellent execution of that premise. Very gross and personal.