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Ghoul's Errand

A horror culture gazette.

Film: Red Eye, PG13, 2005

Watcher Beware! Actually, this one is fairly clean. There’s about four curse words and one disturbingly casual misogynist statement that winds up biting back. A woman gets in position to puke, but doesn’t. There are two major puncture wounds occurring near the end, both with a fair bit of windup.

Wes Craven’s Red Eye is not immediately recognizable as his. Offering a realistic but paranoid view of plane travel, it has more in common with a really good Twilight Zone episode than something we might expect from Craven’s canon. Red Eye is spookily atmospheric and was, at the time of its release, hot-button frightening.

Hotel manager Lisa (Rachel McAdams, killing it) finds her flight home from her grandmother’s funeral delayed due to tropical storms. In between phone calls with a coworker, she meets and has a drink with Jackson (Cillian Murphy, sociopathy incarnate), whom she eventually learns is her seat partner. As the lights go down, he doubletalks about his job. As the plane goes up, they talk about her father- and he tells her about the calls she needs to make to save his life.

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80+% of it looks like this.

Two quick notes about misconceptions:

1. It was my understanding that Red Eye was about hijackings; after all, it’s set on a plane in the early 2000s and makes a point to distinguish itself as a thriller. It’s much, much closer to microbudget suspense (there are maybe five sets), and there’s no out-and-out survivalist violence until the final ten minutes. Red Eye has plenty of opportunities to get topical and hamfisted, but it consistently refuses to engage.

2. I bought Red Eye because my cousin and I were talking about dumb movie deaths, and she brought up a stabbing with… well… something you can still take on a plane. Here in my home office, there are three in my immediate line of sight. I cracked up, unable to conceptualize a campier murder, and relished the idea of seeing it in the middle of something taking itself so seriously. Suffice it to say the act is ultimately nonfatal and contextually logical. I am a little disappointed, but would be more disappointed if it played out how I imagined.

Freaky? Yes. Liable to keep you up at night? Probably not. Recommended highly as a movie in general, but not as a scary one.

Book: I, Tina: My Life Story, Tina Turner with Kurt Loder, 1986

Reader Beware! This book heavily covers an abusive marriage, but portrays it distinctly in the past tense and without too many specifics. The abuser- again, not too graphically- spends a good chunk of the book snorting coke. There are more uses of “motherfucker” than any slurs; Tina sometimes uses less than PC language to describe peoples’ ethnicities, but in a way appropriate for the time in which it was written.

“It was like a horror movie. That’s what my life had become: a horror movie, with no intermissions.”

You read it here first, folks.

Tina Turner’s life story is consistently impressive and frequently heartbreaking. She knew from toddlerhood that she was destined to be an entertainer and collected a fair chunk of change singing for people in the mall through her elementary years. She was, naturally enough, picked up by local band The Kings of Rhythm near the end of high school. The Kings were led by Ike Turner, whose negative impact on her life far outshines the positive one.

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Amazon decided to censor my copy. Joke’s on them: I opened it from the bottom.

I am featuring I, Tina because it discusses, in terrifying, realistic detail, that living-dead feeling when something in your life controls you so completely that you stop noticing individual days. Glancing back from the safety of the career she established herself, Tina’s coerced marriage to Ike reads like an uninterrupted blur of shoehorn beatings and manipulation followed by going onstage like nothing has happened. There are several years’ worth of examples in the text- by and large, the Turners’ coworkers knew what was happening and turned a blind eye- but the event that stood out to me was the cold Tina was forced to work through, which became bronchitis, which became TB, which took about a decade and several methodologies to kick in full. It’s obvious from the start that Ike sees her only as a money machine; there are no monsters so terrifying as other people who refuse to treat you as human.

If not outright frightening, I, Tina makes a personal hell relatable, not through star power but through sheer honesty. The reader doesn’t grow impatient waiting for Tina to leave but relishes with her the small victories brought by her talent alone. Teetering over the edge of believing the abuse and surrendering her humanity, Tina realizes that she is stronger than her circumstances: she wakes up from the nightmare; the horror movie’s credits roll. The rest is several Grammys worth of history.

Look: Rippled metal skull garland, Target, 2016

I eventually intend to do this to my whole wall. (Lower garland (C) Michael’s, 2015.)

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Brought to you by a company literally named “Retail Inc.”.

$3, about $5 total paired with 2 and a half pounds of candy corn.

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Film: The Ouija Experiment, NR, 2011

Watcher Beware! Every character in this movie is a broad negative ethnic stereotype. One man is referred to as “simple” and “the Rain Man type” and summarily assumed to be a murderer. There is a fair amount of misogynistic gaslighting, portrayed in a relatively harmful light.

A black brother and sister, two white men, and an Asian lady walk into a horror movie, and you’ve already got mostly correct assumptions about the order of the hit list.

The Ouija Experiment is a horror movie for people who have never seen a horror movie, or perhaps those who hate them… it’s a little hard to tell. At its core, it’s a numb, racist rehash of a (particularly popular) Mexican folk tale wrapped in a semibelievable dating drama and a ton of hamfisted namedropping. “Didn’t they make a movie, The Entity, about that?” Ugh.

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It’s one of those, all right. Also: distractingly incorrect planchette.

New York YouTuber Brandon takes his friend Shay to Dallas so he can record her playing Ouija with her boyfriend Calvin. Almost-couple Michael and Calvin’s sister La’Nette round out the group. It becomes immediately apparent that Calvin is fooling around on Shay, who uses the board to find out who he’s texting when he leaves the room. The mood shifts. The couple storms off and the others bail, leaving the board sitting in the open without having officially said goodbye.

The obvious follows, with increasingly poor acting and increasingly good special effects. The ending would be passable if it wasn’t preceded by a good ten minutes of (extra-) cringe content.

Given that you’re willingly reading a horror blog, I assume that you’re genre-literate enough to not miss much in skipping this one. The final fire effects are admittedly pretty neato, and the main five actors pour more talent into their vapid characters than they deserve. If you’re gonna watch it, I recommend you skip or snooze through the third quarter.

Look: Carnivale Halloween hand towels, Ross, 2016

Kitschily scaring up our bathroom since last weekend. ‘Tis the season…

I’m so happy.

Film: Requiem for a Dream, NR, 2000

“But Anne,” you’re already saying, “Requiem for a Dream is a drama.” Trust me, that doesn’t make it any less frightening.

Watcher beware! If you can get beyond the fact that this movie is about four people destroying their lives through various addictions- but surviving- it also contains two instances of onscreen vomit, one instance of a needle entering an open wound, ECT, increasingly frequent and increasingly gross CUs on a track mark, strangely sexualized forcefeeding, and at least one use of the N word from a white man. You can see about half of these coming a mile away; the other half occur during montages in which we cut quickly between each character.

With two exceptions, every sexual relationship in RfaD is heterosexual and monoracial. The two exceptions are presented as desperate, disgusting, and horrific. Thematically, it comes with a large dollop of the virginity myth. You’ve been warned.

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If nothing else, it’s sure as heck lit like horror.

I believe novelist Hubert Selby Jr’s initial goal with Requiem for a Dream was to write about people we already know. Harry, our younger-20s protagonist, is working his way up in the world, bolstered by his best friend Tyrone and his designer girlfriend Marian. Harry’s mother Sarah, an empty nester, finds herself getting increasingly hooked on a health-based talk show. You could easily have gone to school with the younger squad- I know I did- and Sarah is very much your average “retired” stay-at-home mom. Darren Aronofsky, for his part, put together an incredible live cast to match the written characters, pulling out both Jared Leto’s and Marlon Wayans’ best performances to date.

Requiem for a Dream is a painfully believable story. You not only know everyone by sight, you sympathize with them from the beginning. Their thought processes are understandable even as they cross lines ours wouldn’t. Of course an older woman struggling with weight loss might start a miracle pill regimen, which might begin to wear off. Of course an up-and-coming fashion designer would do anything to raise cash for her first storefront, and obviously her boyfriend would be campaigning right beside her. Of course young people struggling for dosh turn to monetizing their interests first; sometimes they’re interested in heroin. So it goes.

In four story arcs and three seasons, we watch Sarah, Harry, Marian, and Tyrone pursue their dreams with chemical interference, sometimes for better, mostly for worse. Everyone makes it out alive… somewhat. Body parts, mental health, safety and integrity fall to the wayside as we watch them grow increasingly dependent on their substances of choice, positive beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’ll help them grow and improve as individuals. It’s terrifying- not in the “boo” sense but in the “oh God I need my partner NOW” sense. Ultimately, it’s a fairly existential discourse in how to gauge your self-worth. I humbly recommend not to do it like this.

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Requiem for a Dream has been included on Ghoul’s Errand for high sequences that lean heavily on experimental possession horror. Voices distort, cams go shaky, stereo sound indicates that something we can’t yet see is heading right towards us. Among the credited employees is a “refrigerator puppeteer”, and there’s a related song that I’m pretty sure is used as background music in hell. When the high scenes aren’t scary, they’re realistic even for the relatively sober; I’ve downed enough Benadryl to recognize when and why peoples’ speech would suddenly go wonky. It’s a home-hitting, sophisticated scare- certainly not for everyone but worth a look if your mental health permits.

Film/Musing: The Sixth Sense, PG13, 1999

Watcher Beware! The Sixth Sense is how I discovered the term emetophobia: fear of vomit. Unfortunately, a minor character’s plot thread depends on her illness, and she jump-scare appears puking the first time we see her. She’s the third “visitor” to the Sears’ apartment, and the hints that she’s coming are pretty clear. This movie also contains implicit child abuse and a brief image of self-harm. It does not pass the Bechdel Test, and the only Black character with a speaking part (in a movie set in Philadelphia… come on, now) is given a brief but painful “soul sister” monologue.

I imagine there’s only about two of you out there who either have not seen The Sixth Sense or have not had the ending spoiled for you anyway. (I was in elementary school when it was released, and even the kids who hadn’t seen it were spouting “I see dead people” as attempted referential “humor”.) Thus, this is more of a musing than a straight review. I rewatched The Sixth Sense for about the fifth time last night, and I must say it holds up well, considering that it’s two parts TV14 post-divorce schmaltz to one part abject terror.

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NB: There are about a billion callbacks to The Omen, most of them in architectural shots.

Back when I was too young for the R rating, I routinely named The Sixth Sense as my favorite horror movie- and back in 1999, it was marketed as the scariest ride in theaters, a Four Loko that would sour with age rather than the young wine it turned out to be. Having since substantially expanded my repertoire, it retains an honored spot in my top ten for two reasons:

1. My childhood bedroom had French doors in place of one full wall. The night my parents rented The Sixth Sense was particularly windy. The Ghost Behind The Door scene shook me up pretty badly anyway… but then, rather than being able to sleep, I was treated to more door banging all night long. I was terrified. I loved it.

2. If you ask five people who the scariest or most unnerving ghost in this movie is, you’ll get five different answers. My aunt picks the housewife suicide victim, an old friend the gun accident child. Being emetophobic, Mischa Barton always took first place for me, followed closely by Behind The Door Guy. But the ghosts get notably less scary and more tragic with each watch. I’m no longer too frightened of any of them- I’m not positive that you’re meant to be- but the hanged mixed race family makes my heart hurt the most.

This is the first viewing in which I really noticed Toni Collette, straight-playing Lynn Sear, a mother who unabashedly loves her kid. (It would be another decade before Collette had her own; I’m very impressed that she pulled off a performance this strong without experience in the field.) Noticing that Cole is down while they’re shopping, she “races” the cart until he laughs. They share an ongoing game of describing their ideal days rather than the ones they’ve had. She talks in her sleep, threatening the people she thinks are hurting Cole (see what I mean about schmaltz?). The effect on Haley Joel Osment’s performance speaks for itself- Cole Sear is an unbearably considerate child, in a constant state of agony but as aware of his blessings as his curse. Unable to communicate with Dr. Crowe at all, Lynn’s vivacity erases any doubt he has of abuse at her hands.

I recommend The Sixth Sense if you’re one of those two people who haven’t seen it: it’s literally the only good M. Night Shyamalan movie. Nearly twenty years later, it has depreciated only in tonal expectations, but it may be better to consume it now, lest the wine become vinegar after all.

Book: The Horror People, John Brosnan, 1976

Reader Beware! This book is forty years old and has age-related troublesome language. “Cr*pple” is used openly, and poor Harry Earles is almost exclusively referred to with the m slur in front of his name. Several movies of the era used yellowface, particularly for antagonists; this is mentioned, occasionally with black and white photos, but neither praised nor condemned.

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I wanted to like The Horror People, I really did. Moments of it alternate between fascinating (most of the people featured in it actually consider themselves fantasy auteurs) and screamingly funny (Christopher Lee received a badly translated fan letter exulting him as a “terrible” actor) but I kept finding myself taking larger and larger grains of salt. For every Horror Person featured, there are three equally important ones left out. At first I thought that was due to its age (1976) and author John Brosnan’s points of reference (he’s Australian, writing from London) but, lo and behold- there’s a directory at the end acknowledging the bigger names that were deliberately skipped over. Thus Lon Chaney gets possibly the best chapter in the book, and Peter Lorre merely gets a substantial footnote. Polanski and Romero have the same treatment; our old friend Ed Wood gets a single line in a chapter divided between Lugosi and Karloff. Hitchcock doesn’t appear at all.

Given that many of these actor/director/producer/screenwriters are now late, I do find The Horror People worthy as a time capsule piece. Christopher Lee’s earlier, enthusiastic interviews are readily found; Brosnan presents him in his fifties swearing up and down that he’ll never do Dracula again (and Karloff openly doubting him). Reading Robert Bloch speak in the present tense is deeply interesting, and his dedicated passage is entirely too brief. Elsa Lanchester is the only actress who gets a passing nod, receiving about as much attention as the actors’ wives, praised by them as asides while they describe their careers. The story of Hope Lugosi, Bela fangirl turned Bela’s wife, gets a more intricate passage.

The Horror People sits behind a facade, presenting itself as an omnibus when it’s closer to a “for Dummies” title. I learned several factoids and some deeper information about people I greatly respect; my appetite is enhanced but nowhere near satisfied. I recommend it as a beginner’s book, but maybe don’t drop $10 on it like I did.

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Excellent source of photos like this, though.

Film: Ed Wood, R, 1994

Watcher Beware! Ed Wood has a handful of uses of “f-g” and related slurs, and an uncomfortable spoken description of a transwoman.

Edward D. Wood Jr. is a stand up guy. He doesn’t take no for an answer, quickly learns from his romantic mistakes, and does his very best to help his friends in need. He’s admirably comfortable in his own skin. He’s driven by his dreams and an expert at making do with what he has. He is also the creator of some of the worst films ever made- but he’s sure the next one will do better.

In a nutshell, that’s Ed Wood, arguably the best existing vehicle for both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. In a single word: it’s fun. Ed and company’s production romps look like nothing so much as teen filmmakers with their first camera and scripts they think will change the world. They’re not entirely wrong.

A low level production assistant in 1950s Hollywood, Ed overhears some coworkers discussing a producer buying the rights to a transwoman’s biopic. Ed tracks down the producer and presents himself earnestly as the perfect director- he is, he cheerfully confides, a closeted transvestite. Convinced the role was made for him, and vice versa, Ed writes, stars in, and records Glen or Glenda in record time, without permits, and mostly in single “perfect” takes. In the process, he ends his engagement (she was unaware that the closet existed) and strikes up a legendary friendship with an aged Bela Lugosi.

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From there, Ed Wood follows his career through Plan 9 From Outer Space, capturing highs and lows and the ever-growing ragtag production company (including Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones, and Lisa Marie as Vampira). Pacing is excellent with several in-jokes- consider the colorblind cameraman in a black and white movie- and intelligent use of set pieces.

Ed is extremely likeable if painfully misguided; it’s a difficult story to watch, and requires some suspended disbelief to truly enjoy. If you’re willing to hold your breath and your judgment, it’s a very worthy ride.

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