The Love of Monsters

As Halloween approaches, everyone is getting prepared in the fairly typical ways. We’re all fine-tuning our costumes, decorating our houses, and, if you’re anything like me, watching a lot of horror or monster movies.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been drawn to horror movies – or, really anything with a monster in it. And, more than that, I’ve always been drawn to the monsters themselves. I didn’t just love vampires and witches and shape-shifters – growing up, I wanted to be one. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with these stock characters of film and literature, but it’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself questioning – why? What is it about these characters that draws me – or, more generally, that draws us to them? I mean, there must be something, considering we have a whole day (or, for some, a whole month) dedicated to them.

The stock-answer that many have come up with is simply that we as a species enjoy being scared. Being scared produces adrenaline, which leaves us with a nice “whew-I-totally-escaped-that-killer-even-though-there-was-no-actual-danger” feeling afterwards. But, truth be told, in my case at least, I don’t think that fully grasps where my obsession with these characters comes from. I mean, sure, if I actually met up with a vampire in real life, I’d probably be crumbling to my knees and begging for my life (seriously, it wouldn’t be very pretty), but I’m well aware that the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from turning on Lost Boys or Interview With The Vampire – and not just in October either. I’m talking about a year-round obsession here. A year-round obsession with something that, supposedly, is intended to scare me, but by my 111th-viewing of Lost Boys, it’s sort of lost its initial edge.

So why do we keep going back to these figures?

Well, the next answer that I could think of for this would be that monsters often symbolize for us the forbidden, but I’d even take that a step further – monsters symbolize transgression.

Ever since childhood, the monsters were the only characters that I saw on screen that were allowed to transgress.

Witches, for example, are often represented, not only as strong women, but as unashamedly strong women. Women who keep only female company (interpret that how you will), and who don’t worship the Christian God, and who forego the act of having children. Women who are learned and down-to-earth and free with their bodies and their sexuality. There’s a reason why many feminists identify strongly with witches.

Vampires are often associated with sexuality, due to that whole penetration-exchange-of-fluids thing. Sometimes, such as in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, this sexuality is merely supposed to be interpreted as deviant-outside-of-wedlock-not-for-the-purposes-of-conception-sexuality. Sometimes, such as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, this sexuality is supposed to be interpreted as same-sex-sexuality. Either way, vampires are usually allowed to operate under rules that society restricts humans from, and these rules are often sexual in nature, or at the very least carefree and fun, rarely producing any serious consequences (unless you count getting staked through the heart as a serious consequence).

And even for the monsters that are a little bit less fun to imagine yourself as, they still force us to operate by rules that society restricts us from. Stories of possession force the possessed to reveal sides of themselves they never would have. Zombie stories quite literally force us to imagine what we would do if there was no society to restrict us. And good, old-fashioned werewolf stories are, as we all know, supposed to explore the more animalistic side of humanity.

Growing up and watching these movies, the heroes were all pretty much one-note: strong, tough, fearless, quick-witted, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men or emotional, nurturing, white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. They weren’t really allowed to stray much in their character from story-to-story. The monster, however, could be anything. And now that I’m older, I know that the reason why the monster could be anything is because the monster is supposed to be disgusting and terrifying, and through their transgression, they have earned their punishment. But nonetheless, along my journey into becoming an unashamedly feminist, bisexual woman with mental illness, I had these monster movies to identify with.

And, I mean, yes, it’s a shame that Nancy gets hospitalized at the end of The Craft, but isn’t she just so badass before she does?

And, yes, it’s always sad to read about Carmilla being murdered at the end of Carmilla, but until then, she’s fucking awesome!

And truth be told, I think this touches on the reason why many of us enjoy monsters stories: because many of us relate to the monster. Even if it’s just some small part of us, no one feels like they completely fit in, and no one feels universally beloved and valued. Therefore, when we see a character that is literally hunted down for who they are, we can relate. Because many of us have at least felt as though we are expected to shave off parts of ourselves to fit into society’s mould.

Therefore, we take one of two approaches to the monster: we are saddened by their ultimate downfall, or we take comfort from the knowledge that they had to be destroyed for society’s own good, just like those parts of ourselves that we rejected.

But, for me, these monsters will always hold a special place in my heart because of that sense of identity, that shared feeling of being hunted down and hated by society. And I mean, sure, I understand that they went a little too far when they went to the lengths of murder, and I understand that they earn their punishments because of that, but still, it’s all a fantasy, right? It’s still fun to pretend, just for a little bit, that you do exist in the media.

And that isn’t to say that representation isn’t improving in the media. It is, especially as we continue talking about it. And hopefully, in the future, young, feminist, bisexual girls with budding mental illness will be able to see themselves in the media without that exact character being punished for who they are. Hopefully, we will reach a place in society where the hero is allowed to transgress just as much as the monster is.

But until then, the approach of Halloween gives me an excuse to settle down with a good book or turn on the TV, and catch up with my old friends.

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Psycho 2 Review

Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho is a horror classic. It features images that have become ingrained in popular culture, such as the famous shower scene, the image of the corpse sitting on its chair in the fruit cellar, and Norman Bates’s evil smile to close off the film. It offers many brilliant performances, many subtle notes, and many reasons to come back to the film again and again. Really, it’s a story that doesn’t need to be continued – a story that you almost don’t want to see continued, because the narrative gaps that are left into the film are all ones that you enjoy filling in for yourself. And yet they made a sequel. Yay?

So, yeah, let’s get that out of the way first: this is a sequel that doesn’t really need to exist. The first Psycho was complete unto itself, no one was really clamouring to see how Norman Bates’s story continued, and although the book that Psycho is based on does have a sequel, this film is not based on it. And considering the fact that the first film was a classic, there’s absolutely no chance whatsoever that this film can compare. But that being said, a lot of horror sequels aren’t really necessary, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed for what they are.

And there are quite a few things that this film has working in its favour. Anthony Perkins returns to play Norman Bates, and his performance was a highlight of the first film. He was the awkwardly charismatic man with a secret, someone who you knew wasn’t quite right but you weren’t quite sure how not right until the movie’s end. Well, in this film, all pretense is dropped and we know how not right Norman Bates is. Sort of. I mean, we know the crimes that he is responsible for in the past, but interestingly enough, the film’s conflict comes from the fact that Norman Bates has been released into the public, considered legally sane, and yet murders have begun springing up again, and Norman has begun receiving messages from his mother again. Is he losing his mind again, or is someone working against him?

On the one hand, I like this conflict. I feel like, at some point, it was the makings for a very strong script. I like the idea of humanizing a person who is extremely mentally ill and responsible for terrible crimes. But, at the same time, there is a fine line between humanizing someone and ignoring the fact that they are a serial murderer, and this film crosses that line sometimes. There are multiple points throughout the film where other characters are accused of being “just as crazy as Norman,” and unless they’ve also hacked up women in the shower because they dared to be attractive, I’m going to say that isn’t true. There are simply too many times in this film where it feels like the writers forget the things that Norman is responsible for, and more than that, they forget just how mentally ill he was. They forget about the internalized misogyny that made him want to punish women he found attractive. They forget that his alter-ego “Mother” was not solely responsible for the things he did, and that getting rid of that alter-ego would not completely cure him and make him an average, neurotypical man. And, yes, I know that time has passed since the first film and that Norman has been in mental institutions ever since, but a) the first film established that Norman had been in psychiatric care before and it hadn’t cured him completely, and b) I can only buy that Norman has changed a certain amount, and being replaced with an entirely different character is not enough.

And, not to mention, there are a lot of plots in this film, to a point where I felt somewhat confused about what was going on. Without spoiling anything, there are multiple villains throughout the film and not all of them are working with one another. Norman just seems to attract crazy. A subplot is introduced regarding the possibility that Norman may or may not have adopted, and I’m not really sure what this subplot adds to the universe of the Psycho films. It just feels really ridiculous and unnecessary.

But that being said, I went into a film called Psycho 2. I was prepared for ridiculous and unnecessary, and that is exactly what I received in abundance. I do not feel let down by the film that I saw, not in the least, and as much as I’m aware that it was a bad film, it still held my interest all the way through. I got the impression that the writer behind this film watched the first Psycho and thought: “This is good, but what if it was more sympathetic toward Norman, and what if the women were all the villains instead?” and that choice was simply so befuddling to me that I wanted to keep watching. And by the time the film ended, I felt like I had thoroughly enjoyed myself.

So the way I see it, when you come across a film called Psycho 2, you know what you’re getting into. You know that it’s probably going to be a little over-the-top, a little ridiculous, and considering it was a sequel to a horror film made in the 1980’s, a little gory. And as long as you expect that, rather than the brilliance of the first film, you will not be disappointed. You might even have a lot of fun with it.

Underrated and Overlooked Halloween Movies to Watch This Year

Halloween is creeping up on me much quicker than usual this year. I’m used to turning Halloween into a month-long event, one where I spend all of October huddled under a blanket with popcorn or chocolate, watching horror films on my laptop. This time, however, October has simply been a whirlwind of activity, and all of a sudden, we’re less than a week away from Halloween!

So to make up for lost time, I’m breaking out the Halloween films! The creepy, the dark, the gothic, the grotesque, the terrifying – and boy, do I have a collection of them! Year after year, I find a new film to become a tradition. And the funny thing is that when you search online for good Halloween films to celebrate the season with, you typically get the same films over and over again (The Exorcist, Halloween, Carrie, ect.), and as much as those are all great movies, there are still plenty that I have to watch year-after-year that tend to get overlooked – including horror sequels, films that are either too old or too new, and overlooked remakes.

So this year, I feel that it is my responsibility to bring these films to the light – to call out all those forgotten nightmares and celebrate them the way they deserve to be celebrated.

Without further ado, boils and ghouls, let’s pop some popcorn, turn down the lights, and begin.

1) Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

Year of Release: 2010

Director: Eli Craig

I discovered Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil only shortly after its release, and I’ve been watching it religiously ever since. Like, it’s kind of sad. I think I can quote whole scenes by now. Focused on subverting classic horror tropes, this horror comedy takes the stock characters of the masochistic hillbillies and turns them into totally endearing goofballs who will make you hope and pray that they turn out okay. It’s a story about overcoming judgement, about seeing people for what they are beneath the surface, and about college students diving head-first into woodchippers. Altogether, a Halloween film that cannot be missed this season!

2) Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Year of Release: 1987

Director: Chuck Russell

I’m not going to lie, I’m a big fan of the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series. Some sequels are weaker than others, but this is definitely the strongest of them all. In fact, if you ask any fan of the series, they’ll probably tell you that there are only two Nightmare on Elm Street films that you should take seriously: the first one, and this one. While the first film was a straight-forward slasher film, this one changes it up slightly by setting it in a mental hospital, where a group of teens are being persecuted by your favourite burn victim and mine, Freddy Krueger. This is around the time in the series where Freddy started to gain a sense of humour, so he’s a bit more than the simple monster he was in the first two films, but it hasn’t quite crossed into the realm of ridiculous yet. Instead, we get great performances by a talented cast, memorable and gory death scenes, and a plot line that provides the ultimate power fantasy for troubled teens.

3) Bride of Chucky

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Ronny Yu

For those of you who aren’t as sadly obsessed with horror movies about killer dolls as I am, this is the fourth movie in the Child’s Play series. Coming off of two lackluster sequels, this film breathes new life into a dead series by doing something that I particularly love to see in a horror film: adding comedy. Like Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, this film is a straight-up horror comedy, focusing equally on the humour as it does on the gore. If you’ve ever seen a Child’s Play movie, then you pretty much know the plot, but giving Chucky a partner to work off of – particularly a partner who doubles as a love interest – works greatly in the film’s advantage, giving them plenty of material to work off of. If you’re looking for a horror film that you don’t have to take too seriously, but that will bring you plenty of enjoyment this Halloween season, then this one is definitely for you.

4) Evil Dead 2

Year of Release: 1987

Director: Sam Raimi

Now, I can’t say for sure that this one counts as ‘overlooked’, but it is a horror sequel so I’m counting it. It also happens to be one of my all-time favourite movies. A good portion of this movie’s strengths comes from its focus on the walking charisma-ball that is Bruce Campbell, but it’s also just written wonderfully, filled with memorable scene after memorable scene. This is just one of those movies where every time the action changes, I find myself cheering, “oh, this part!” to myself, drawing closer and closer to the screen in anticipation of what’s to come. It is a somewhat old movie, and the special effects are somewhat dated (not to mention, it is a Sam Raimi film – cheese is to be expected), but if you’re the sort of person who can either overlook it or enjoy it altogether, then this is definitely a film you need to watch.

5) The Exorcist 3

Year of Release: 1990

Director: William Peter Blatty

I know, I know, I said that the Exorcist wouldn’t be on this list – but this doesn’t count. It’s a sequel, and that’s within the rules! And, to be totally honest, I personally think this sequel is better than the original (shock, horror). Maybe it’s just because I wasn’t raised with a belief in the devil, but the original just sort of struck me as another horror film, whereas this one stood out as special. The pacing is a bit on the slow side, but that creates a very eerie atmosphere that allows for a lot of great scares. The dialogue is long, but never ceases to keep me interested. And if none of that is enough to convince you to check this film out, then let me just say this: Brad Dourif as the Zodiac Killer. His performance is truly fantastic – one of the best in horror movie history, I’d say, especially considering he delivers it from a straight jacket the whole film through. If you don’t have time to watch the whole film, or if you just can’t find it for whatever reason, at least look up clips of Brad Dourif in this film, because trust me, it’s something you need in your life. But, then again, so is the entire film.

6) The Crow

Year of Release: 1994

Director: Alex Proyas

I wouldn’t count this film as a horror movie – more of an action movie, really – but as it deals with plenty of dark themes and is set around Halloween, I think it more than earns its place on this list. This is another of my all-time favourite movies – a love story about a murdered man returning from the grave to avenge his girlfriend’s death. Every single actor in this film delivers a wonderful performance (I would give particular shout outs, but the list would be too long), and the film packs in plenty of emotion, even while portraying enjoyable over-the-top villains. If you aren’t a fan of horror films but are in need of a Halloween treat this year, or if you’re just looking to watch a great movie, I’d definitely recommend this one.

7) The Lost Boys

Year of Release: 1987

Director: Joel Schumacher

Vampires. What could ever be wrong about vampires? And these are the best kinds of vampires – 80’s vampires, with great hair, motorcycles, and a badass taste in music. Again, this film is more of a horror comedy, which, as you may have noticed, is a favourite genre of mine. Some of my favourite movies jokes come from The Lost Boys, and I will never pass up an opportunity to quote it. It’s not a particularly brutal film, so even if horror films make you squemish, I still recommend it. Another one of my all-time favourite movies, this one will make you laugh until you cry, and then race to your computers to purchase the soundtrack on iTunes.

8) Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight

Year of Release: 1995

Director: Ernest Dickerson

I’m a huge Tales From the Crypt fan. Every October, and sometimes just randomly throughout the year, I’ll pull up an episode on YouTube and settle in for some good cheese and 1950’s horror comic nostalgia. But when I’m more in the mood for a film, Demon Knight is the one I always turn to – and I’m not going to lie, a good part of that is Billy Zane’s performance. Portraying the head demon, the word ‘devilish’ is definitely a good way to describe him in this film. He’s charming, manipulative, intelligent, tricky, and (of course) hilarious. If you like Tales From the Crypt, then you’ll definitely love this film.

And just as a side-note, if you enjoy Demon Knight and are hunting for a similar film to satisfy your tastes, I’d definitely recommend watching Tales From the Crypt: Bordello of Blood next. I didn’t include it on this list because I don’t tend to watch it as often, but it’s definitely the obvious next step to take from here.

9) Crimson Peak

Year of Release: 2015

Director: Guillermo del Toro

This film is much more recent, so it’s difficult to tell if it’ll gather more of a cult following as time goes on, but I do find it to be a somewhat overlooked gem. I think that the thing that turns most people off of it is the simple fact that, despite looking like one on the surface, it isn’t a horror film: it’s a gothic tale, complete with a decaying castle, a persecuted heroine, and hints of the supernatural. But that’s part of what I love about this story. I’m a huge fan of the gothic genre, and have dedicated the last two years of my life to studying the progression of the genre, so when I saw this film, I definitely regarded it as a breath of fresh air. It’s classic enough to hearken back to the old genre, but still modern enough to turn the old conventions on their head. I particularly like what the film does with gender, introducing a hero, a persecuted heroine, a patriarchal villain, and then, by the end, subverting all of them. In order to enjoy this film, however, you do need to go into it without expecting a horror film, and if you can do that, then you will find an intriguing mystery, unique characters, and brilliant visuals that could only have been provided by the great Guillermo de Toro.

10) House on Haunted Hill

Year of Release: 1999

Director: William Malone

I find this movie to be a somewhat polarizing one – people who I have spoken to about it either love it or they hate it. I fall into the former camp. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some people hate it – it is a remake of a very classic horror film starring Vincent Price, and much of the plot was very much lost in translation. Both films feature a party in an old house and… that’s about it. I personally find that all of the changes made to the plot help me to see the two films as just that – two separate films. And there is plenty to like about the 1999 adaption – particularly the visuals. I find that the movie has a very unique aesthetic to it, incredibly gruesome and nightmare-inducing in a manner all its own. Doctors perform surgeries on completely conscious patients, corpses are dismembered and displayed for viewing, and all within the dark, creepy confines of a castle with flickering lights. It’s not a horror film for those who prefer subtlety (which is really bad news for fans of the original), but if you’re okay with the extreme, sometimes to the point of ridiculous, then I definitely think you can find some enjoyment out of this film.

11) Sleepy Hollow

Year of Release: 1999

Director: Tim Burton

Ah, 1999. Back when a film being directed by Tim Burton was a good sign.

Again, I find this film to be a somewhat polarizing one. Fans of Washington Irving’s short story might find themselves disappointed by all the changes, but fans of Hammer Film Productions will be delighted by the way that it pays homage to the old horror movies. And even if you aren’t a fan of Hammer Film Productions (truth be told, I haven’t even seen one of their movies, and that’s something I’ve always meant to rectify), there’s still a good bit of Tim Burton charm to the picture. The styling is gorgeous, and the added witch subplot is one that never fails to draw me in. I recommend this movie for anyone who isn’t too attached to the original short story, and who is perfectly willing to accept a little supernatural into your horror.

12) Slither

Year of Release: 2006

Director: James Gunn

Another horror comedy! Or, does it count as horror? Is it more of a sci-fi? Who cares, it’s about creepy little worm aliens that crawl into your brain and take control of your body, that counts as horror to me! This film is filled with jokes from beginning to end, but it doesn’t let that distract from a few good, creepy scenes. And if you need one good reason to seek this movie out, let me just say that Nathan Fillion of Firefly fame is in it, who, like Bruce Campbell, is really just a walking ball of charisma.

13) Candyman

Year of Release: 1992

Director: Bernard Rose

Considering how many horror comedies there are on this list, maybe I should start designating the films that aren’t funny. And this one isn’t. At all. It deals with a lot of uncomfortable themes surrounding poverty in the United States and racism. It’s based off a story from Clive Barker, who you might recognize as the writer of Hellraiser, and while I don’t think that his name is always a surefire sign of quality, he doesn’t disappoint here. One big reason that this film is such a classic to me, though, is simply Tony Todd’s performance as the Candyman. There’s something incredibly charming and alluring about him, making you want to know more about his character despite his brief appearances on screen. And, I mean, come one, the guy held a whole bunch of bees in his mouth for this movie. The least we could do in return is regard this as a Halloween classic!

14) The Haunting

Year of Release: 1999

Director: Jan de Bont

Another polarizing movie, this one is based off of one of my favourite novels, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I don’t know why I mention this, because it really has nothing to do with the novel – and, oddly, I’m okay with that. It’s sort of similar to how I feel about the two House on Haunted Hill movies – they’re so different that I can’t bring myself to compare them, but I think that these differences are part of what makes audiences hate the movie so much. After all, the novel is subtle, tricky, difficult to understand, and the movie is… not. But it definitely makes up for this with stunning visuals and with creepy ghost children that whisper your name in the night. This may not be a movie for you if you’re looking for one that will make you think, but it is definitely one to check out if you want a good, creepy horror movie that just looks the way a ghost story should.

15) The Craft

Year of Release: 1996

Director: Andrew Fleming

For my last film on this list, I chose one about witches, because I love witches. Witches are amazing. There should be more horror films about witches. Witches who represent female power and feminine bonding. Witches who deal with the everyday issues of a teenage girl. Witches who look like Fairuza Bulk I mean… witches who can act like Fairuza Bulk, yeah, that’s what I meant. Because Fairuza Bulk does give an amazing performance in this film, representing the witch who’s just had enough with society and is going to begin using her power to get her way, no matter who she hurts in the process. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a straight-forward horror film, but I definitely think it works as a good Halloween film, particularly one that you can watch with all the girls together, snuggled close against the cold in your costumes with bowls of candy nestled between you all.