Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Here at The Thread, we’re convinced that the world is going to turn out to be spookier than we used to think.
Spooky in the usual sense, yes. But also, spooky in Einstein’s sense: “Spooky action at a distance.” Which Einstein thought was impossible, but which quantum physics confirmed last year to be not only possible, but the way the subatomic world really works. On the deepest levels, the physical world misbehaves in spooky ways.
This reaffirms our belief in fairies, phantoms, saints and everything that people witness in person but elude capture by modern technology.
The larger notion is one that we first ran across in The Mists of Avalon — as gospel of the new gods spread, the magical but very real world of Avalon (a parallel universe?) retreated further and further into the mists of midsummer twilight.
Which is one of several reasons why the forest primeval of Puritan Massachusetts is such a compelling setting for a truly spooky story.
This first film from director Robert Eggers is a highly combustible concoction of religious zealotry, a looming virgin forest, and a young girl’s burgeoning sexuality.
This sounds right up our alley — combine intense belief with forces beyond the character’s control. Add in a contradictory mix of isolation and claustrophobia. For us that’s the essence of horror – the feeling that you’re completely alone and trapped in an inescapable situation.
The movie turned a modest mainstream-level profit in its first weekend – but a big chunk of that mainstream audience came away feeling cheated, and were vocal about it on social media. Seems they came out to see a scary movie and instead got a Sundance arthouse darling, dripping with as much critical cred as blood.
Which, of course makes us all the more eager to see it.
Meanwhile Eggers is on to a Nosferatu remake. Normally this would make us cringe. Really? But for now we’re intrigued.
Start with a Spanish speaking director, add in a parallel universe and Gothic trappings – this one had us at Hello.
This was the most mainstream film thus far from Alejandro Amenábar, who also directed The Sea Inside and Agora, a surprising sword-and-sandals film that was far too cerebral for its $50 million budget.
In some ways The Others was a (quasi-spoiler alert) one-gag pony. But with a gag that appeals strongly to our spooky soft spot.
Yeah, It could have been knocked off in an episode of Twilight Zone. But Amenabar successfully elongates it with piles of atmosphere and a compelling central performance by Nichole Kidman. It was a great role for her at this moment in her career – she’s brittle enough to crack, but powerful enough to hold you by the lapels until the trap is sprung.
An obvious choice, but you know how we drool over Kubrick – so let us count the ways.
Like The Witch, the set-up is sooo perfect –that same cocktail of isolation and claustrophobia – thank you, Stephen King. And plausible, even before the spookernatural element kicks in — we all know writers are inherently crazy. Add a dash of the im-plausible – really, Shelley, that creepy old hotel, alone with just your kid and Jack?? It’s kind of a perfect stew.
And we do have a bit of skin in this game here. One of our kids, round about age two, did see dead people…
So, of course, you get it. But the casting, Omigod. How could Nicholson be so funny and so scary at the exact same time? And who could be more utterly helpless and hapless than Shelley Duval?
Why are horror films scary? Why is death scary? Buddhists (among others) would attribute that dread to the ego and its desperate need to maintain control.
Jacob’s Ladder was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who purportedly incorporated concepts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead in both this film and his hugely successful romantic take on the afterlife, Ghost.
Jacob’s Ladder is a harrowing psychedelic conflation of post-traumatic stress and a Tibetan-flavored notion of purgatory. Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam vet who has returned to the States after a brutal brush with death, but is plagued by increasingly vivid flashbacks. He reconnects with buddies from his platoon and begins to believe that they are victims of a government conspiracy.
Or — spoiler alert — is he a man who is trying to die but is plagued by the persistent illusion that he’s still alive? Rubin has been variously rumored to have drawn from Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Carnival of Souls. But back in the day we briefly shared a therapist with Cohen, and that experience inclines us to favor the Buddhist link.
Jacob’s Ladder was directed by Adrian Lyne. By his blockbuster standards this was incredibly arcane and kind of a flop (opened at #1, but only made $26millon). Which qualifies it for cult classic status.
Note that the above image is a screen grab, and that in this sequence our heroine is driving about 30 miles an hour when she notices “The Man” looking through the window.
And that The Man is director Herk Harvey, who wrote, produced and directed this definitively cult film in Lawrence Kansas for $33,000. Even though he went on to spend 33 years writing and directing for educational producers Centron Films, Carnival was his only feature.
Nobody seems to know what inspired Harvey, but his visionary story of a protracted and terrifying pre-death interlude takes place among the mundane trappings of everyday life in midcentury Utah, with virtually no special effects and none of the obligatory bells and whistles of modern meta-horror. His leading lady was the virtually unknown Strasberg-trained blonde, Candace Hilligloss. She, like Harvey had an otherwise uneventful career.
Carnival of Souls is remarkable because even though it’s so singular and isolated, it resonates so strongly. It reminds us of David Lynch, George Romero, and our French-language undead favorite from last year, Sundance TV series Les Revenants.
What happens in the woods, stays in the woods.
In this low budget faux-found-footage phenomenon, the canny first-time filmmakers dropped the utterly mundane into the forest primeval and rolled all of the inherent limitations of their gritty low-budget endeavor into the premise of the film. A real witch won’t stand still for a selfie. But it doesn’t have to in order to scare us.
Or some of us, anyway. Savvy digital marketing turned Blair Witch into a mainstream monster, a juggernaut that had everybody had to see. But like The Witch, half that mainstream audience came away disappointed with the utter lack of special effects. But even that didn’t stop it. It became the blue dress of the day. You had to see it and render your opinion.
For some people horror is more fun when it’s not all in your head.
But it depends on your world view. For those of us who still believe that the scariest thing is lurking out there in the woods just outside our field of vision – the thing that only the little kids can seeBlair Witch turned out to be just the right ticket.