The Innocents (1961)

Watching Crimson Peak last month put me in the mood for a spooky story.  Something old, set in the past, and with ghosts.  Luckily, I had 1961’s The Innocents on hand.  Guillermo del Toro regards this as one of his top horror movies and you can really feel its influence on Crimson Peak

The Innocents is based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw.  Sadly, I actually haven’t read this work but I’m familiar with James’ writing enough to know that the supernatural in his stories is used as a means of discovering people’s psychological states.  This is a case where the ghosts may not be ghosts.

The movie stars Deborah Kerr as rookie governess Miss Giddens.


She’s interviewed by the unnamed Wealthy Uncle (Michael Redgrave) who only cares that Miss Giddens take full responsibility for his niece and nephew.  Giddens takes the post and moves to Bly, his country estate.

There she meets and is taken with his niece, Flora (Pamela Franklin).


She’s a sweet girl but is somewhat creepy, especially in this scene where she observes a butterfly fighting off a spider.


Her creepiness factor is increased when she predicts her older brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), will be returning home from school despite the fact that the holidays aren’t near.

In fact, Miles does return after being expelled.  He’s sweet, smart, and incredibly flirtatious.


Miss Giddens finds the children to be unsettling and is troubled by the entire estate, especially when she sees a man on the tower.  She learns that Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the Uncle’s valet, died on the grounds.  He’d been engaged in an emotionally abusive affair with the children’s first nanny, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jesop).  They were indiscreet and it’s possible the children observed them.  Miles especially admired Quint and saw him as a father figure.

At first Miss Giddens thinks the estate is merely haunted but she becomes obsessed with the idea that Quint and Miss Jessel are possessing the children, especially after Miles recites a poem saying, “What shall I sing to my lord from my window? What shall I sing for my lord will not stay? What shall I sing for my lord will not listen? Where shall I go when my lord is away?”


She tries to exorcise the ghosts from the children but how do you free someone who isn’t possessed?  The haunting at Bly is less about the actual ghosts and more about Miss Giddens’ mental state.  The children in the movie are incredibly creepy but this may be a result of the fact that they’re parentless, left to be raised by boarding schools and the housekeeper.  Miles is incredibly flirtatious and shares two kisses with Miss Giddens but is he possessed or just emulating the behavior of someone he admired?  In the end, the results of Miss Giddens’ interference are disastrous.

This movie isn’t the kind of movie that’s jump at you scary.  It’s more intense and atmospheric, like the sequence where Miss Giddens searches for the source of unearthly voices and ends up in the room she shares with Flora.

In a lot of haunted house movies, I end up saying that the house is a character.  That isn’t true for this movie.  I don’t think we ever even see a full shot of the house.  The house is all large windows with billowy drapes and fireplaces but I don’t think the audience sees a full room.  Unusually, the movie is mostly tight shots with incredibly stark lighting.



This is to emphasize that it isn’t the house that’s the problem.  Stephen King once said something like “Bad places attract bad characters.”  This isn’t the case, the problem is the people inside, not some kind of inherent wickedness.  Even with their flaws, Quint and Miss Jessel exhibited nothing more than usual wickedness when they were alive.

Another thing that makes the movie so unusual is the use of synthesized music and ambient sounds as opposed to the usual orchestral score.  It works well and is an unusual choice for that time period.

In the end, the movie is less about ghosts and more about Miss Giddens becoming unraveled.  She’s a vicar’s daughter who’s extremely innocent and becomes extremely unglued in the face of prepubescent flirting.  You can even see a change in her clothes as the movie progresses.  At first her wardrobe is primarily light but as time passes it becomes darker and darker, perhaps hinting at the heavy mourning Miss Jessel went into fter Quint’s death.  In the end, the viewer is left wondering if the children were ever possessed and if it isn’t Miss Giddens that’s really possessed.


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Crimson Peak

In his introductory essay, “Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors,” to American Supernatural Tales, del Toro says;

When I was a child–roughly seven years old–I started purchasing and collecting fantastic literature…
The discovery of the horror tale at such an early age was fortuitous for me. This sort of tale serves, in many ways, the very same purpose as fairy tales did in our childhood; It operates as a theater of the mind in which internal conflicts are played out. In these tales we can parade the most reprehensible aspects of our being: cannibalism, incest, parricide. It allows us to discuss our anxieties and even to contemplate the experience of death in absolute safety.
And again, like a fairy tale, horror can serve as a liberating or repressive social tool, and it is always an accurate reflection of its time and the place where it gets birthed (xiv-xv).

I’ve been noticing mixed reviews of Crimson Peak and, after seeing it, I can understand why. I enjoyed the movie but I also read a lot of gothic literature, from Poe to Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. This movie has the feel of a 1960s gothic horror, with lots of supersaturated colors and lush settings. It’s not the fast-paced hour-and-a-half of jump scares that the Paranormal Activity series and pretty much anything that Blumhouse makes, that people are used to.
Del Toro goes further back in time than he did in The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, back to turn of the century Buffalo, New York. The movie opens with a battered Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) telling the viewers how she’s always seen ghosts and that ghosts are around.

The movie goes back in time, where we properly meet Edith, an aspiring writer and daughter of a widowed builder, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). We see her meet the poor but titled baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who asks Carter for money to help save his clay mines.

Carter, and Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a childhood friend, are suspicious of Thomas and his odd sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), to the point of hiring a private detective to investigate them.

Edith has seen ghosts from the time she was young, and her mother’s disfigured, grisly ghost warns her multiple times of “Crimson Peak.” It’s too late, though, by the time she gets there.
Edith falls in love with Thomas and ends up leaving the country with him even in the wake of the brutal death of her father. Side note, Carter’s death scene looked amazing, I think it was mostly practical effects, and I wish some of the other effects looked as good as his death. She moves to his dilapidated estate, Allerdale Hall (Also known as Crimson Peak, because of the red clay that leaches through the snow), with Thomas and his sister. The hall itself is a character unto itself, like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House rolled into one, with actual bleeding walls. Edith sees more ghosts as she grows to hate the house more and more and is disturbed by Lucille’s strange behavior.
In the beginning of the movie, Edith debates with her editor about whether her story is a ghost study. She says it’s a story that happens to have ghosts in it. That can be said about Crimson Peak, it’s really a story about people and isolation, and there happen to be ghosts in it.
It wouldn’t be a del Toro movie if there wasn’t lots of atmosphere and creepiness. I liked that the ghosts are hideous, disfigured, and disturbing. Some of them bear resemblance to Santi from The Devil’s Background, with visible wounds and floating gaseous blood.

Sadly, some of the ghosts were too CGI looking, they all had this plastic sheen that I could have done without, like Pixar movie characters. The one ghost I did like was the bathtub ghost, because it was one of the only ones that seemed to have a real person playing it.
I generally enjoyed the movie but there were some pacing problems. It felt a little too long in its exposition. Some of the tropes were obvious and I figured out where it was going within the first fifteen minutes. It’s still fun getting there, and I think fans of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and the Lovecraft story “The Rats in the Wall” will enjoy this movie. I particularly liked when Thomas tells Edith that their hearts are connected and if the connection is severed then he’ll die because it reminds me of Jane Eyre when Rochester says something similar to Jane. I just wonder if, in my mind, del Toro’s best work will always be his Spanish language work.
So, fans of Mario Bava, The Haunting, and gothic literature, there’s a movie for you.

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Stage Fright (2014)

So my deep, shameful secret is that once upon a time I was a theater geek. A super theater geek. So I thought I’d love a movie set at a theater camp with a musical killer slashing the kids. I was wrong. So, so wrong.

The movie even opened up with a True Warning, which everyone knows I’m a sucker for.
Sadly, this could not save this movie.
Allie MacDonald stars as Camilla Swanson, the cook at a theater camp.
Her mom, Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) was murdered a decade ago while starring in a production of “The Haunting of the Opera,” a Phantom of the Opera knockoff since I’m so sure they couldn’t afford the rights. Now Camilla and her twin brother, Buddy (Douglas Smith), are in the care of Roger McCall (Meat Loaf), the producer of “The Haunting of the Opera” and owner of the theater camp.
He looks like Stephen Jay Gould...

He looks like Stephen Jay Gould…

All Camilla wants to do is sing and act and it seems perfect to cast her in her mother’s role in the revival. Until people start being taken out one by one by a killer in a kabuki mask–oh yeah, the revival is set in feudal Japan because when a certain type of pretentious white people want to be edgy they add “ethnic.”
The killer is literally the only character with any interest because every other character is too busy being insufferable.
I fancy that I’ve watched a lot of slashers and can speak on some authority about what makes a slasher good. If every character is going to be awful with no redeeming qualities then the kills had at least better be satisfying. In this movie, the characters were so paper-thin that I couldn’t care about any of them and the kills weren’t gory enough to make up for this.
Honestly, Camilla was the worst character for me. I expect more grit from my Final Girls (Although the body count is so low that she barely qualifies for the title). She’s all big eyes and fragility. When the play’s director, Artie (Brandon Uranowitz), starts making it clear that Camilla will only perform opening night if she has sex with him, Camilla just goes along with him (until backing out at the last minute). But she’s basically ready to sleep her way to the top for a part in a community theater play. Or is this a case of sleeping your way to the bottom? I just can’t see Laurie Strode or Nancy Thompson putting up with that load of malarkey.
Is it fair that the whole time I was watching it, I was comparing it to Opera? Probably not. Still, Stage Fright makes my least favorite Argento flick look really good.
How I felt while watching "Stage Fright"...

How I felt while watching “Stage Fright”…

It made me wish that instead of creating a fake musical with horrible lyrics that they just used an old opera. THAT is creepy! And that lends itself to cool and creepy visuals. And, most importantly, it lacks white people in kabuki costumes shouting “Hi-yah!” Seriously, that really happened.
The killer’s reveal ended up being incredibly boring and unoriginal. I watched it with my best friend, who doesn’t watch as much horror as I do, who commented, “This entire movie feels like a Fear Street book. Did R.L. Stine write this?” No, there are Goosebumps books that are scarier than this movie.
I’ll just leave you with a video of the only interesting part of the movie.

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The reason that my best friend is my best friend is she understands that I’m the kind of person who wants a movie about exploding heads for my birthday.

The 1981 Canadian horror film follows Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). He’s a young vagrant who’s unable to function in society due to his highly advanced psychic abilities. He hears everyone’s thoughts very loudly.
He’s discovered by people working for the private security firm, ConSec, and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the head of a program studying and weaponizing scanners, people with advanced psychic abilities.
The scanners program is under pressure after a renegade scanner infiltrates a demonstration and makes a man’s head explode.
Ruth teaches Vale to control his psychic abilities, with the help of a drug called Ephemerol, and sends him to hunt Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), an incredibly powerful rogue scanner. For the first time, Vale is able to meet other scanners like Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), an artist living in his huge sculptures.
Vale uncovers a corporate conspiracy involving ConSec and the drug company Biocarbon Amalgamate, with the help of fellow scanner Kim (Jennifer O’Neill).
For all of its body horror, the plot is very conventional and follows fairly standard sci-fi tropes. My main criticism is that, except for Vale, none of the other characters are particularly well developed. Scanners is particularly famous for being a difficult shoot with Cronenberg writing the script in the early hours before filming. I don’t really understand all the nuances of Canadian film financing–just enough to thank them for giving us some amazing horror films–but I know that Cronenberg was working in a very short amount of time to take advantage of this. That short working time is probably why the characterization suffers.
That being said, the performances are quite good. Even with minimal personal information about the characters, the actors make you care. Stephen Lack, in particular, brings humanity to a character that other characters describe as inhuman.
Scanners gets a lot of attention because of the famous exploding head scene–accomplished by shooting a foam latex head from behind with a twelve gauge shotgun–but the overall effects are amazing and hold up quite well, considering this movie is older than I am. That’s no surprise, with Dick Smith consulting–we’ve seen his work in The Exorcist. For me, the highlight of the movie is the psychic battle between Vale and Revok.
The score by Howard Shore is also notable. It creates an incredible amount of tension, especially during the scanning scenes.
While the movie deals with the issues of our very thoughts being dangerous, you can also see the influence of the thalidomide scare in the plot. In the late 1950s, thalidomide was marketed as a wonder drug to cure morning sickness in pregnancy. Unfortunately, it caused severe birth defects in fetuses when ingested by the mother before the third trimester.
The movie was good but I don’t think it’s my favorite Cronenberg sci-fi–I think that title goes to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh/mind?

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Insidious Chapter 3

Hi, everybody!  Remember that time I was really bad at updating my blog?  Sorry about that.  I’ve missed everyone a lot.  I’m just super involved in school right now and I’m also working and trying to make the best artwork ever for Walker Stalker Con NY/NJ.  Yes, I will be in artist alley for the second year at the Meadowlands!
In the continuing tradition of watching scary movies with my mom, I saw Insidious Chapter Three. Like the other two, it was a mixed bag for me but I actually liked it more than the second one.

This is a prequel, taking place before the events of the second Lambert haunting. Stefanie Scott stars as Quinn Brenner, a teenage girl whose mother died recently. She reaches out to psychic Elise Rainier (with Lin Shaye returning, yay!) but Elise has her own problems to deal with. She’s being plagued by the Bride in Black (Tom Fitzpatrick) and her husband recently committed suicide. Elise takes a liking to Quinn and tries to reach out to her mother but is unable to due to the presence of the Bride. She warns Quinn, though, saying that when you try to contact the dead that all the dead can hear you.
Quinn continues to experience paranormal activity in her home and starts to see a shadowy figure, that eventually causes her to be hit by a truck. Confined to bed with two broken legs, the activity escalates to the point that Quinn’s father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney, in a very Mustache Dad from Twilight role) contacts Elise and begs her for help. Elise attempts to venture into the Further but the Bride in Black almost kills her. Sean contacts a pair of bloggers, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell), who realize they’re way out of their league. Luckily, Elise returns to help after meeting with her friend, Carl (Steve Coulter) from Chapter Two.
Frequent James Wan collaborator, Leigh Whannell, wrote and directed this movie. Frankly, it felt like he was stretched thin between his writing and directing duties because the script is underwritten. There are some incredibly corny moments, like when Elise yells, “Come on, bitch!” at Parker Crane. Lin Shaye does her best with the material but it’s a mistake to turn Elise into Ripley. Quinn is characterized as so improbably cool–I don’t mean Mean Girls cool, I mean more like hipster cool–that she doesn’t feel real. Do the youths today listen to the Pixies and P.J. Harvey? If so, can we hang out?
In the last movie, I thought there was too much backstory for Parker Crane. In this movie, there’s absolutely no story given for the movie’s bad guy, the Man Who Can’t Breathe (Michael Reid MacKay). I’d like to see some kind of balance, between zero backstory and too much. Did he live in the building? The Brenner family lives in an apartment building that seems to have more ghosts than the Overlook Hotel.
The pacing didn’t drag the way the second movie did but there was an over-reliance on jump scares. It would have been nice to have some more tension-building. That being said, I really loved the scene where Quinn hears tapping on the wall between her room and her neighbor Hector’s (Ashton Moio) wall. That scene has a very nice payoff.
As usual, I loved Lin Shaye’s performance. It’s a shocking character change to see Elise so depressed, that really sticks with the viewer. Her and Stefanie Scott both do well portraying different kinds of grief.
What I wanted more of were scenes of the Further and the souls that reside in it.
Not the tableaux, necessarily, but I liked the specters that lined the hall as Elise walked deeper into the Further.
This movie, like the others in the series, is a mixed bag, but I think it’s a definite improvement over the second movie. That being said, it’s not as scary as the first movie.
Insidious Chapter Two

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Killer Legends

Joshua Zeman, the director who made Cropsey is back with a new documentary about the origins of urban legends, Killer Legends.

I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with urban legends. Part of it is probably my steady diet of Cropsey stories I grew up hearing in Staten Island. I discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series when I was six or seven, quite possibly the greatest series of books to ever emotionally scare kids with their uncanny illustrations and stories of skin-stealing scarecrows. Plus, I grew up in New Jersey, the home of Weird New Jersey magazine. I lived within driving distance of the Devil’s Teeth at the Watchung Reservation, Demon Alley, Thirteen Bumps Road, and Devil’s Tree. Damn, there was a lot of devil-naming going on in central New Jersey in the 80s and 90s.
I thought I’d briefly go through the legends movie discusses and the real-life cases they link up with.
The Hook

A couple goes to Lover’s Lane to make out. The boyfriends presses the girl to go farther but she’s not comfortable. He drives her home and turns on the radio, where there’s a report about an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand. The guy gets out of the car to let the girl out and there’s a HOOK hanging from the door handle. I’ve heard about a dozen versions of this urban legend, including a particularly gory version where the guy gets out of the car to investigate scraping noises coming from outside, leaving the girl alone. Then she starts hearing a scraping noise coming from above her and her boyfriend has been HANGED and it’s his heels making the scraping noise.
Zeman and researcher Rachel Mills link the Hook story with the Texarkana Moonlight Murders from 1946. The killer, known as The Phantom, wore a white hood with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth, and attacked couples in isolated areas. You might be familiar with this case because Charles B. Pierce made a fictionalized slasher about it, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a full two-years before Halloween was released. The Town That Dreaded Sundown became a late-night cult classic and featured a memorable scene where the killer attaches a knife to a trombone and kills his victim by trombone-stabbing.
Anyway, it’s believed the Hook legend comes from these killings. Interestingly, my original thought was the Zodiac Killer, who had a similar MO to the Phantom.
The Candy Man
If you’re a certain age, then you probably don’t remember a time where your parents didn’t search your Halloween candy. Everyone knows there are psychos poisoning candy and putting pins in razor blades in apples.
Believe it or not, there is but one case of someone poisoning Halloween candy. In 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan’s son, Timothy, got deathly ill after eating some Pixy Stix he got for Halloween. He died en route to the hospital. Suspicion fell on Ronald when it was realized that he had taken out a hefty life insurance policy on his son. So there aren’t random strangers trying to kill children on Halloween, just their own parents.
The Babysitter
A young woman is home alone. Sometimes she’s babysitting. She starts getting gross, threatening calls. She calls the cops and phone company and ask them to trace the call. The pervert calls back and the cops successfully trace the call. They frantically call the girl and tell her to get herself and the children outside because the calls are coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.
A similar scenario happened to Janett Christman, who was babysitting in Columbia, MO. in 1950. She was just thirteen when she was raped and murdered while babysitting for three-year-old Gregory Romack. Janette got no warning though, and was actually part of a rash of killings in the area. There was a suspect but he was never charged and actually sued the sheriff’s department.
It must be hard for people of a certain age to understand the kind of anonymity we used to have. Before cell phones, caller ID, and star-69, you could really prank call anyone. You can really see the fear of the unknown and fear of strangers in this story. But, statistically, children being babysat are more likely to be injured by their babysitters than babysitters being hurt by random killers.
Why So Serious?

Everyone knows not to trust a clown because you don’t know what’s under his makeup. When I was writing for I noticed a trend of people dressing up as clowns and just walking around. When did people become so scared of clowns?
John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer from the Chicago-suburbs who killed at least thirty-three young men, was notorious for dressing as Pogo the Clown for his charity work, but he didn’t use the clown to lure his victims.
Clowns have always been dark, they were just sanitized in the fifties and sixties for children’s television and commercials. So maybe the fear of clowns is just the clown mythos coming back full circle? Look at Pagliacci, the murderous opera-clown.
What I liked about the documentary was that it made connections that I hadn’t made before and actually taught me the origin of a legend that I hadn’t heard before.
That being said, it felt constrained by time limits. Each legend gets about twenty minutes to examine the story and then go into its origins. I’m not sure a movie is the best format for this. I would have cut the “Why So Serious?” portion because John Wayne Gacy’s crimes are only tangentially related to the scary clown legends whereas the other legends have more solid footing.
The movie was definitely entertaining but I think I’d love to see it as TV show or miniseries. There are so many legends with killer roots that you could probably do a solid hour-long episode per legend. I definitely recommend this to anyone who like urban legends and creepy real history.

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The Taking of Deborah Logan

I am one of the biggest complainers about horror on Netflix streaming. It’s always a struggle to find something to watch that isn’t an Asylum flick or some SyFy bad-on-purpose movie. That’s why I was so excited to see 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan.

The story follows a documentary film crew–Mia (Michelle Ang), Gavin (Brett Gentile), and Luis (Jeremy DeCarlos)–and their subject, Deborah Logan (Jill Larson from Shutter Island and All My Children), an older woman with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Deborah is resistant to filming but her daughter, Sarah (Anne Ramsay) wants the film to be made, since they’re going to lose their house.
Things seem pretty normal as they film but events escalate fairly quickly including Deborah’s odd behavior, making it clear that there are forces beyond just mental illness at play here.
What I really liked about this movie were the strong female characters. Deborah Logan is a formidable woman, someone I don’t always agree with but I still find interesting. Her physical transformation as she increasingly loses her mind is intense and Jill Larson’s performance is amazing. Sarah is just as formidable but in a different way from her mother. And Mia clearly has her own agenda amid the chaos of the increasingly supernatural events.
What makes the movie work is that the house is its own character. It’s huge, impressive, and on the edge of some pretty creepy woods.
As Luis says, in my favorite quote from the movie, “White people and their basements and their fucking attics.” This house has three creepy attics. You can see how this house could be a kind of portal to something evil, especially with Deborah’s abandoned switchboard in one of those attics.
The movie packs some great scares. Aside from the possibility of possession and ghosts, there’s some serious body horror here including an intense spinal tap. It reminded me of The Exorcist when Regan is undergoing all the psychiatric procedures. It just strikes you as unfair and evil that anyone would have to undergo that.
The movie is filmed like a documentary but it uses minimal shaky camera. It’s kind of Blair Witch-lite without all the nausea. The security footage is used to good effect, letting the viewers see the paranormal activity but without the huge boring sections like <a href="Paranormal Activity. It’s easy to scare people if you get them bored enough and then add a jump scare, it’s harder to build up tension like this movie does.
My only complaint is the ending. It felt overdone. It’s set in these really spooky caves and has a very The Descent feeling. That is scary enough but the director pushes it too far. Plus, maybe because I’m a seasoned fan, but I could see where they were going within the last twenty minutes. I wish there had been more restraint.
That being said, it’s still an interesting and scary ghost/possession mash-up. The Babadook got a lot of positive buzz in 2014 but it’s a shame I didn’t hear more talk about this movie.

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