The final theme month recommendations include a modern twist on a classic saga and the movie that started the teen horror revival
(Before we start: please imagine there is creepy organ music playing while you’re reading this. Actually do better than imagine it, and have this playing in the background. Thanks!)
Welcome to the Cringe Blog finale, all ye minions of the night. It’s been a fun ride this month, and frankly I’m sad it’s over. There are so many great shows and movies I didn’t have a chance to mention, and… actually, I’m just going to give them a brief pitch here. If you’re still getting an itch for horror in the upcoming winter months (which remain spooky, even though October is objectively the spookiest of them all) give these works of art a look.
They’re not all on streaming services — I’ll note the ones that are — so you might have to pay for them individually. I know paying compensating creators for their art is an INSANE idea these days, but trust me, these are worth a few bucks.
- “Trick 'r Treat,” rated PG-13: A fun anthology film following multiple happenings on one Halloween night. More thrilling than scary, which makes it a perfect family watch. (It’s still a bit scary, though).
- “Stranger Things,” rated TV-14 (Netflix): A good sign of how stacked the horror/thriller genre has become lately is that I went a whole month without mentioning this show, which is the best '80s love letter/monster movie homage going right now. Can’t wait until season three drops in 2019.
- “The Guest,” rated PG-13: If someone shows up claiming to be a friend of your dead son and asking for a place to stay, never, ever let him into your home, even if he’s played by the underrated Dan Stevens. (Also, this movie's score absolutely rules.)
- “Hereditary,” rated R: I first saw this movie, which is a meditation on grief disguised as a possession movie, in theaters earlier this year by myself. What a decision that was! I had a hard time sleeping for like, a week afterwards. I then saw this movie two more times. It’s great in all the ways you expect and, especially, the ways you don’t.
- “Annihilation,” rated R: I am most definitely going to do a longer Binge Blog piece on this movie when it’s streaming, but for now I’ll say this: After being released in January, it’s my still favorite movie of the year, and you should go into it knowing as little as possible, other than it stars Natalie Portman, who absolutely rules.
- “What We Do in the Shadows,” rated R (Amazon Prime Video): From the delirious minds of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement comes the best vampire movie ever made, focusing less on bloodlust and more the day-to-day problems vampires face, like arguing with roommates, finding dates to a dance and making enough money to pay rent on time. If you like dry humor, this is one of the funniest movies of the last few years.
- "Shaun of the Dead"/"Hot Fuzz"/"The World's End," all rated R: This not-really-at-all connected trilogy from director Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver") is so brilliant and funny and sometimes poignant but then right back to silly and perfect. The first one is probably the most Cringe Blog-appropriate, but it's so good that you might as well watch all three.
- “A Ghost Story,” rated R (Amazon Prime Video): Yeah, I already wrote about this movie, and no, it's not horror, but it’s so good and I just want everyone to watch it, OK?
If you liked those pitches, you're going to LOVE these next two!
“The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)
Netflix, rated TV-MA, 10 episodes, 50 minutes
The hot horror series of the moment is “The Haunting of Hill House,” (loosely) based on the classic Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. I was worried about this series going into it, because most of the time there are reports of the newest “scariest movie/show ever,” there’s a lot of jump scares involved, and I like my scares to be earned instead of cheap. Thankfully, this show does earn its scares, though it shares a lot with “Hereditary” in terms of it being a family drama with scary scenes, as opposed to scary scenes centered around a family, if that makes sense.
Let me give some context: “The Haunting of Hill House” follows the Crain family: parents Olivia and Hugh, oldest brother Steven, sisters Shirley and Theodora, and twins Luke and Nell. The seven Crains once lived in the titular Hill House, but a gruesome episode forced the family to leave. The show splits its time between the past and present, spending most of the series deciphering what exactly happened on that fateful night while also revealing more about its central characters, none of whom are as they appear at first.
What the show does right, first and foremost, is (like “Hereditary”) tackle the grieving process. Spoiler alert: People die in this show. There’s one death in particular that the show revolves around, and though it occurs at the end of the first episode, I won’t reveal it here. The show is smart enough to know that not everyone grieves in the same way: One character is angry at the deceased for the choices they made, another refuses to believe the deceased is gone and a third is so overcome with despair that they stop feeling anything but despair, ever.
The biggest takeaway is that even though there are literal ghosts in the “Hill House” universe — A frighteningly tall man in a spiffy hat, a woman who looks straight out of a Great Gatsby party for the undead and a spirit aptly named “The Bent-Neck Lady” among them — most of the ghosts in our own lives are feelings. Feelings of guilt, or nostalgia, or regret or even a wish. These things never leave us no matter how hard we want them gone, because maybe experiencing them forever is better than never experiencing them at all.
The show’s ending has been divisive on the internet, but I fall on the side who likes it. It wraps up the story of the Crain family in a way that jives with what the themes of the show were all along. If you’re hoping for the show to save its scariest moments for last, you might be a little disappointed. But if you prepare for a human look at dealing with trauma (and you should after this review), I think you’ll be satisfied.
Plus, the middle episodes of the show (let’s say four through eight) is a contender for the best run in a television show in 2018. And holy hell is the Bent-Neck Lady frightening. You’ve been warned.
STARZ Play, rated R, 111 minutes
Where else could Cringe Blog end than the movie that gave a dying genre a complete rejuvenation?
I don’t know if I’d be writing this piece if not for “Scream.” Not because it was the first horror movie I watched, but because it inspired so many of today’s best horror filmmakers. It rewrote the rules of what a slasher movie could be — by literally breaking the genre down and making meta-notes about it along the way.
(Yes, I’m spoiling this movie below. It came out 22 years ago, deal with it.)
The movie’s first twist was actually its advertising. “Scream” stars Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, a teen whose town is dealing with a killer whose murders all start by asking his victims about their favorite horror flicks. But trailers for the film starred Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker, because Barrymore’s was the biggest name in the movie. In actuality, “Scream” kills her character (memorably) within the first fifteen minutes. Nothing like this had been done in a film before. With so much death in media nowadays, it’s tough to make loss of life truly shocking, but “Scream” succeeded.
The movie’s killer twist — literally, that the killer was actually two different people — also had never been done before. It’s been copied numerous times since, a testament to how brilliant the idea was. And on top of all that, the movie is equal parts terrifying and legitimately gleeful.
Remember last week when I said I loved when characters make rules for themselves to survive? It happens here, too, with characters listing horror movie cliches (if you have sex, you’re dead; if you say “I’ll be right back,” you won’t be back; The villain is never dead when you think they are; etc.) and creating rules to avoid them and thus survive the hollywood-obsessed Ghostface. Of course, these being teens, they break their own rules pretty quickly, and make fun of each other when they do it.
This movie is to the teen slasher genre as “Cabin in the Woods” is to the, well, cabin in the woods genre. Both films use humor to make fun of its own genre while also giving it a big hug. Yes, slashers are sometimes dumb. Yes, people make terrible decisions in them, and they’re all chock full of the same scenes done slightly different ways. But we like that. It’s comforting, in a sense, to know what you’re going to get from a film. “Scream” knows this, and is able to keep that comfort factor while also turning the genre inside-out. (It’s the movie version of the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast, in a sense, but making fun of itself.) That’s not an easy thing to do, but it succeeds.
Fun fact: “Scream” was originally called “Scary Movie” in Kevin Williamson’s script. That, of course, became the name of the series of parody movies that made fun of slashers, “Scream” in particular. It was cool to poke fun at “Scream,” which meant “Scream” was cool, in general. The movie made more than $173 million, showing the movie world that horror was far from dead, as long as it was infused with fresh blood, fresh ideas.
It feels weird to call a movie of this ilk important, but “Scream” truly was. It also holds up, thanks to its meta-commentary, and is still a great watch. If you at all consider yourself a cinephile, you have to watch “Scream.”
Plus, if a killer ever asks you what your favorite scary movie is, you can say this one. They’ll probably leave you alone after that.
See you next week. We’ll be back to normal then, but in the interim, stay spooky, y’all.