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From Cabin in the Woods to Rosemary's Baby - What Works and What Doesn't in Horror Films

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Read a rather interesting review of Whedon and Goddard's Cabin in the Woods by Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly (April 2012)

1. As the stakes become greater, storytellers Whedon and Goddard creep right up to the lip of a really interesting chasm of hell. They cha-cha around the abyss. And then they ...Nah, preferring to play with the symbols of scary movies rather than sincerely provoke and explore fear itself. And so, as countless squibs of fake blood explode and chaos reigns, this viewer is left to wonder: What does it take these days to really, seriously horrify the target audience for Cabin in the Woods?

2) Where are the intrepid genre filmmakers willing to be unironic, challenging viewers comfortable with game-style plot twists and the digitized world of mash-ups and re-tweets in which the amused head is more familar than the aroused heart? In production notes, Whedon reports with pride that ' Goddard is a true horror aficionado. He's the kind of horror director who'll spend a day watching different blood splatters to find the right one.' The scary truth is, the right blood splatters don't mean splat in a movie that feels like a game.

Her third point...

There's a lot of buzz around this movie, but it means little without the power to stir our actual blood. "The movie's biggest surprise may be that the story we think we know from modern scary cinema - that horror is a fun, comic game, not much else - here turns out to be pretty much the whole enchilda." [ETA: Further down under top ten horror films, I discuss Texas Chainsaw Massacre II - which makes me think more of Cabin in the Woods - both are black comedies about the horror genre, which became cult hits.]

Now I haven't seen Cabin in the Woods [ ETA: written prior to seeing and reviewing the film], just read reviews and saw the trailer and posters. And read a few interviews. But the review fits what I've read to date. It also, to a degree, fits a lot of other similar horror flicks from Resident Evil to Cabin Fever to Hostel to Saw to Drag Me to Hell. Kevin Williamson's Scream flicks a way started the ironic trend. The idea of killing people turned into a game. An idea that Suzanne Collins satirizes to great effect in The Hunger Games. Where young and pretty people are contestants in a game, designed to inflict untold horrors on them. The book is grittier than the film, since in a final sequence, the dead "tributes" or contestants' bodies are reanimated and mutated into horrific creatures set to devour the remaining ones. I was personally relieved that the filmmakers chose not to try this feat of CGI. But what Collins pulls off in The Hunger Games is a critique of a society that gets off on violence as a game. A shrugs it off as a big joke. In the Hunger Games, Collins dissects fear, but also shows how hope in some respects is the bigger and more powerful and possibly more dangerous emotion.

It's odd, The Hunger Games is a Young Adult novel. Recently rose to the top of the ALA's banned books list. And was ridiculed as a young adult book by comedic sketch writer and columnist Joel Stein, who considered it too juvenile for grown men to read. (How much you want to bet, Mr. Stein, is watching Cabin in the Woods this weekend?) But of the two...Hunger Games feels more adult. More complex. And more satirically adept. It covers each of the items the reviewer wonders about.

Not that there is anything wrong with horror film being fun and crazy and a game. But after seeing The Hunger's hard not to feel a bit disturbed by it.

Anyhow..the reviewer's comment: "Where are the intrepid genre filmmakers willing to be unironic, challenging viewers comfortable with game-style plot twists and the digitized world of mash-ups and re-tweets in which the amused head is more familar than the aroused heart?" This.. got me to thinking about what horror films touched my heart and stepped outside of the game-style plot. What are the "A" horror flicks opposed to the "B" pulp ones. What are the horror films that truly scared me, kept me awake at night, and I remember now with a weird sort of love that borders on the purely masochistic? [And as an aside - What are yours? What films truly scared you? What horror films moved you? What films did you love with masochistic abandon, often watching many many times? What do you look for in a horror flick, assuming you like the genre at all? For me? It's character, a sense of wit or humor that comes from the characters, and a pull at the heart. Mix of humor and heart, and surprise.]

I like the horror genre far more than I'm willing to admit. I'm curious about horror films. Find myself seeking out the reviews, and wanting to watch the films. And horror like all things is a personal. What scares a unique thing. When universal, magical.

1. The Haunting - Robert Wise's minimalistic psychological haunted house thriller[ not to be confused with Spielberg's over the top version] black and white, starring Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris. Wise was an interesting film director, he preferred a minimalistic almost documentary style to film-making. Another notable Wise thriller was Andromeda Strain.

2. JAWS - Stephen Spielberg's first major film. Although Duel, which he did prior to this one is even creepier. But I like JAWS better. Scared the heck out me as a kid. But why did it work? The characters. The monster was barely in it. We rarely saw it. Instead, we had a three-character piece about fear and the triumph over it. A Sheriff who is afraid of water, who has to conquer that fear to challenge a shark. It's a masterful character piece and every time it comes on, I re-watch. Every character is developed. From the Sheriff's family, to the shark expert played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the Captain who has killed more fish and shark's than he can count. You cared what happened to these people. Every time the shark popped up, you were afraid for them. The shark itself wasn't scarey, the fact it could attack and kill them at any time, without warning...

3. The Shining....try watching this one in an empty dorm. It's the opposite of JAWS in that you really don't care what happens to anyone. Well, maybe you do, I didn't. But each character is real, disturbingly real, and not archetypal. It's a family that is broken and crumbling. And the father is slowly going insane. Kubrick's piece is a nice counterpoint to Wise's minimalism. And like Wise's The Haunting is about the fractured mind. In both films, the ghosts of the house are manifestations of the troubled soul's own demons, which at the film's conclusion take them over. While The Haunting delves in the demons of a being a woman, a single woman, faced with caring for her parents, being their caretaker and the claustrophbia involved, the walls slowly closing in, until they literally are breathing - The Shining delves into the demons of the male provider, who has to give his family a better life, who is trapped by those responsibilities and his own inadequacies to the point that he begins to seek comfort in the bottle and the manifestations of his demons, his own isolation and his fears take him over.

4. Rosemary's Baby directed by Roman Polanski, based on Ira Levin's thriller of the same name. Staring Mia Farrow, it's a film that delves much as the book did on a woman's fear of pregnancy, of her child, of it being taken away from her. It's never clear in Rosemary's Baby whether Farrow's character is insane. We see it through her pov. Did she give birth to the devil's child? Or is it in her head? In the end doesn't matter, from her pov, she loves the child. As all mother's do.

5. Alien...a film that scares the bejeesus out of me. Ridely Scott's classic - Ten Little Indians in a Space Ship...with an alien life form on the loose. The ultimate in haunted house flicks. It also provides the best twist on the pregnancy horror plot. Spawning various sequels, the best being James Cameron's Aliens, skip the others, it still ranks above as the best. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, and Lance Henrickson.

6. Psycho - the first and the best of the slasher flicks. Woman goes to a deserted motel after robbing a bank with her lover. She takes a shower...the rest is history. At the time, the shower sequence was considered insanely violent and horrific. Hitchcock like Wise was a master of minimalism. He understood that the audience's mind could come up with far worse things than any camera. We see little blood, and it's in black and white. Stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins - in a role that typecast him forever afterwards. Halloween barrows heavily from Psycho, as do many others, but none come close to the brilliant character deconstruction of Perkins lead character or the twists. Perkins character is unpeeled like an onion during the film and each slasher film afterwards feels like a mere commentary on the first.

7. Silence of the Lambs - Jonathan Demme, based on Thomas Harris thriller, starring Jodie Foster, John Glenn, and Anthony Hopkins...the story of an FBI agent who seeks a serial killer, using the serial killer's therapist to figure him out and catch him. One catch?
The serial killer's therapist is far worse than the serial killer she's tracking. And is slowly getting inside her head. Best line? "I ate his liver with fava beans...was quite tasty, with a nice chianti." Each character in this film is fully developed. I still remember them now, years later. From Jodie Foster's earnest FBI agent to the woman in the well, fearful of never being saved. The title is about the lambs that Jodie Foster heard being slaughtered as a child, a memory that haunts her and Hannible Lector pulls out of her bit by bit and devours whole.

8. Deliverance...the ultimate in a bunch of people go to a Cabin in the Woods and run into hell. There's several good films in this genre. Night of the Living Dead by George R Romero. Southern Comfort. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Known for the dueling banjos sequence, and the horrific rape later in the film.

[An aside Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is actually very similar in concept to Cabin in the Woods and written by a writer who is similar to Whedon, sister-in-law's uncle.
LM Kit Carson. Who also directed and co-wrote Paris Texas, his son Hunter Carson is in the film, and Love Crimes. I've never met him.

Here's the description:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (also known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2) is a 1986 American dark comedy/horror sequel to the 1974 horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The film stars Dennis Hopper as "Lefty", Caroline Williams as "Stretch", Bill Johnson as "Leatherface", Bill Moseley as "Chop Top" and Jim Siedow, who reprises the role of "The Cook". It was written by L. M. Kit Carson and directed by Tobe Hooper, who also directed and co-wrote the original film.

Despite having a much larger budget than the first Chainsaw film, the sequel was highly criticized by some critics for its stylistic departure from the first film, which used minimal gore and a low-budget documentary style to scare its audience by skillfully building up dramatic tension. Unlike its predecessor, TCM2 contains a large amount of gore and features special effects from make-up maestro Tom Savini.

The emphasis in this sequel is on black comedy, which director Tobe Hooper believed was present in the first film, but unacknowledged by viewers because of its realistic and shocking content. Despite being successful in its initial 1986 theatrical run, the film failed to make a substantial profit for the studio. However, it eventually became cult classic and quite popular on VHS, which led to a special edition release of the film on DVD in 2006. See Wiki Entry for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Reminds me a great deal of Cabin in the Woods and the reviews regarding it.

Regarding L.M. Kit Carson?

Talented and versatile Texan writer, actor and producer whose career has taken a diverse and always interesting course. His first appearance was the lead in the acclaimed David Holzman's Diary (1967). He moved into writing, with initially mixed results in The Last Word (1979) and Breathless (1983) before his beautiful adaptation of Sam Shepard's Paris, Texas (1982) tangibly showed his talent. Next up was the oddity The Chinese Box (1986) before associate producing and writing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). It was back to acting in 1988 for an effective appearance in the acclaimed Running on Empty.

A family friend of the Wilson brothers, their black-and-white 13 minute Bottle Rocket made its way into his hands in 1994. His championing of it was instrumental in Wes Anderson being given funding to shoot a full-length version in 1996, which he co-produced. Carson's output in the last few years has been nothing if not varied - including several collaborations with his son Hunter Carson, from his relationship with Karen Black. Hurricane Streets (1997) was a worthwhile drama of inner-city kids, Midsummer (1997) an interesting take on Shakespeare. He reprised his role of David Holzman for Grifin Dunne's industry mockumentary Lisa Picard is Famous (2000) then produced and wrote the disasterous Bullfigher (2000). Since then, Perfume (2001) was a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion industry, CQ (2001) a homage to European cinema of the 60s and staying in Paris the interesting low-budget thriller Tempo (2003).

- Wiki Link to Bio of Kit Carson

Not a fan of this particular genre. But I did actually like Deliverance which is the best of the bunch. About a bunch of guys who go a wilderness camping trip and run a foul of the locals. A great character piece, where we see what happens to people as they are pitted against nature, each other, and a threat they can't see or deal with. Depicting how often we are our own worst enemies.

9. The Blair Witch Project - this may be the best of the shaky mockumentary camera flicks, where we don't see what is happening and most of the film's lore is hinted at on the internet. A creepy story, ruined by the sequel. Proof money can destroy a story. The first film did what all the others on this list do - it focused on the characters. We knew these people.
We watched them irritate each other. And to a degree irritate us. It felt real and we did worry about what happened to them.

10. The Exorcist...directed by William Friedkin, adapted by the writer, William Peter Blatty from his book.

The Exorcist is a 1973 horror film directed by William Friedkin, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel of the same name. The book was inspired by the 1949 exorcism case of Robbie Mannheim,dealing with the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s desperate attempts to win back her daughter through an exorcism conducted by two priests. The film features Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair. The film is one of a cycle of "demonic child" films produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Rosemary's Baby and The Omen. From wiki - Link

The most horrifying thing about this movie was the silences. The special effects were nasty, but the feeling of a safe, normal house, then the twist...lurking. The slow build. Ellen Burstyn's single working actress. Her guilt at not being there for her daughter. Putting career first. And the examination of ...mother/daughter relationship bracketed with the younger/older priest...and the concept of faith.

Of the new bunch?

I admittedly haven't watched many of the new croup of horror flicks. My generation tends to be lacking in the character development department of the previous generation.

* Kevin Williamson's Scream flicks.[ it was new in 2012]..have characters that are fully developed and not just tropes. Also notably, he makes the hot actors (Billy Crudup and Matthew Lillard) either the villains or kills them off. It's witty and humorous, but also develops the characters a bit more. They are alone. Watching horror flicks. No parents in sight. With a hapless cop and reporter in tow. The series makes fun of the slasher flick tropes, while at the same time paying homage to them.

* The Ring, the Grudge...or the Japanese psychological horror films. We remaking them like crazy for a bit. I find them hard to watch, because they stay in my head hours later, playing with it. The Ring reminds me a little of Poltergeist, except Poltergeist had more interesting and far better developed characters. The manical ghosts come out of the television set in both flicks. Also Poltergeist unlike the Ring grabs your heart. It does go a bit over the top though. The Grudge has a similar problem, it's a cold film. Hard to care about the characters. You feel detached. It's mostly about the cinema shocks along the way.

*The vampire flicks...Let the Right One In probably the creepiest. But there's also Near Dark (too gory for me), The Lost Boys (which I know inspired Whedon's Buffy), The Hunger (David Bowie and Susan Sarandon)...there's a lot in this genre.

* The Vanishing...a Swedish film and the best of the serial killer genre. There's also Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer - which is more horrifying than scary. The Vanishing is also more horrifying than scarey.

There's a divide in the horror genre, between "horror" and "scares". Films that horrify and films that scare you. Cabin in the Woods, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and possibly Silence of the Lambs fits in the horrify category, while The Exorcist or The Haunting may fit in the scary category.

Good Zombie flicks? Hard for me to judge, since I don't like zombies - I find them disgusting. Weak stomach for gross. It's why I've avoided certain films such as David Croenburg's The Fly, Scanners, Hellraiser, Cabin Fever, The Ruins,[ETC: The Fly, Scanners, Hellraiser and Cabin Fever are not zombie flicks - they are just really gross in certain respects and contain material the really bothers me.] Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Return of the Dead [Just gross]. Not a fan of splatter. Rob Zombie is not my favorite film maker. I remember being told about really gross film in the 1980s, about a bunch of kids who drive through a nuclear waste cloud and come back like zombies, everyone they touch melts. In the 1970s and 1980s, we got a lot of horror flicks about nuclear radiation and nuclear waste and nuclear war - that was what scared us back then.
Now we're terrified of terrorists.

But back to zombies? I do have a few I rather enjoyed. Night of the Comet about two valley girls who are left to tackle zombies, after everyone else is rendered evil. Zombieland - which is just hilarious in places. Shaun of the Dead - a bit gross, but also hilarious. Yes, I like my zombies tongue in cheek, it's a thing. Evil Dead is just too gross for me to make my way through.

Slasher flicks? the best is probably Psycho, sorry to say. Although John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street do go a long ways towards reinventing the genre. My favorite of the unstoppable stalker with a knife tales is The Hitcher and Terminator, because they do unexpected things and have a bit more to them. Was never a fan of Friday the 13th - although the original flick is a take-off of Psycho, Mom is the bad guy not the son.

In the original Friday the 13th (1980), Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) stalks and murders the teenagers who are preparing Camp Crystal Lake for re‑opening. She is determined to ensure that the camp does not reopen after her son Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake because two staff members who were supposed to be watching him were having sex. The last counselor, Alice (Adrienne King), fends off Mrs. Voorhees long enough to grab a machete and decapitate her.

It became a franchise, like Halloween and Nightmare, except in the sequel and films that followed, Voorhees turned out to be alive and fully grown, returning to wreck havoc on anyone venturing towards Crystal Lake. While Halloween wasn't that gross, Nightmare and it's sequels were. One of the most innovative was Freddy taking over the body of a teen, possessing him, so that he could kill. Nightmare was about killing people through their dreams. Other films played with similar concepts, such as Flatliners and Dreamscape.
Of the films, Craven's bothered me the most, so I tended to avoid them. Halloween bothered me the least - and I appreciated it's take on both character development and urban legends.
Carpenter's Halloween is a masterpiece. One that I was taught in high school in an art class - the art teacher used the film to explain an artistic concept. In the film, we are shown how a killer is created...he's told as a child to beware of the boogey man, his sister terrorizes him, and he ends up going insane, upon his release from the Santorium, he goes after the house-sitter, who he mistakes for his sister (turns out in the final chapter, that she actually is his sister.) Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh (Psycho) plays the lead role. Donald Pleasance plays the psychiatrist.

Horror and scarey films are ways of dealing with the things that bother us. If we can pull them out of our heads, thrust them up on a screen, scream, laugh, and poke fun at them - they aren't scarey. And it's been done for ages. The old campfire tale. The urban legend. Oral narratives are mostly horror tales - fairy tales stem from them.

Many are based on truth or real stories. Bended and twisted out of shape over time. Until they are barely recognizable. I was always fascinated by how a story could get embellished and reshaped and retold. My mother will complain about how my father tells stories wrong - that's not what happened, she'll tell him. And he'll state - true, but it's more interesting and funnier if I change it. I was once told by a creative writing teacher in NYC that fiction writers are liars. Good liars. We embellish. We change things. Twist and turn them to make them more interesting. I think that is true.

In college I remember collecting ghost stories. I did it in Colorado Springs and in Wales, UK. Collected ghost stories, urban legends, horror tales from various people. Fascinated by what scared them. Each ghost story was told as if it was true, actually happened. Some were meant to horrify, some to merely scare, and others to make you jump then laugh at yourself and the story afterwards. We've all heard them. We've all told them. At slumber parties, camping, usually at one another, with just the dim glow of a candle or a fire in the dark. As a child..I loved them. As an adult, I remain fascinated.

I started this post out...being critical of a film that I haven't seen, or perhaps appearing to be, yet at the end of it, I find myself questioning the criticism. Turning horror into a game - does to a degree lessen it. Soften it's edge. And you can't help but ask yourself what scares the filmmakers. What motivates them to write or film horror. Cabin in the Woods sounds like a 21st Century version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, both told tongue firmly in cheek, both bound to be cult hits...shown repeatedly on the underground circuit, with mixed critical praise, if any. Self-congratulatory in places, not in others, inside jokes at films the filmmakers have seen. Tobe Hooper reminds me a bit of Drew Goddard, and Joss Whedon reminds me a great deal of LM Kit Carson (who I know a lot about, because indirectly related by what amounts to three degrees of separation). Both are comments on films that were successful during that time period.

It happens with a lot of horror tropes, sooner or later, someone will begin to either parody, satirize or comment on the trope in a tongue-firmly-in cheek fashion. Depicting how it is a game. We fight zombies on video games. We find ways to kill or demolish or laugh at that which scares us. Whatever it may be.