Horror movies

Most horror movies are pretty horrible. Not horror-inducing, just bad.

Predictable.

Simplistic.

Boring.

Psychopaths prey on teenagers or unwary travelers with chainsaws, axes, long, sharp knives, or other implements guaranteed to cause pain and death. Spurting blood. Anguished screams.

*Yawn*

No psychopath has yet equalled the remarkably non-violent and un-bloody (well, barring one notable scene) Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Terrified victims race from room to room (or tree to tree if lost in a forest). Then, just as safety is (apparently) in reach, the killer leaps out and takes a fatal swing.

Settings are as clichéd as the monsters: Houses where a murder occurred. Abandoned lunatic asylums. Foggy forests. Cemeteries. Halloween.

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There aren’t many movies I can say truly scared me, but here are a few I can recommend.

THE UNINVITED (1941), starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a traditional haunted house story that, for all its age, uses excellent special effects to create lovely levels of creepiness to this story. Ghosts—there are two—appear unexpected and, in one case, in unexpected form. Even two big handicaps—the lack of acting skills possessed by Gail Russell, who played the young woman in peril, or the purple dialogue handed to an otherwise wonderful actress, Cornelia Otis Skinner—can mar the pleasures of this straightforward ghost story that contains, at its heart, a murder mystery.

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), starring Bruce Willis in one of his best roles, a brilliant Haley Joel Osment, and a lovely turn by Toni Collette, as Osment’s mother, bewildered about how to understand and support a son who obviously doesn’t fit in with other kids. First time I saw this, I did not see the ending coming, and I was delighted, especially when repeated viewings revealed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan played fair: The clues are all there, as are a plethora of red herrings. Creepy moments occur when least expected: Collette turns her back on her neat kitchen for a few seconds, only to turn and find ever cabinet and drawer has silently, swiftly opened. Osment goes the bathroom in the middle of the night and, as he stands before the toilet, something passes down the hallway behind him. Marvelous.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) scared me silly first time I saw it. Oren Pelli, the writer and director, understood a critical point few writers/directors grasp and fewer put into action: Haunting terror is best evoked not in chainsaws or masked killers but by making the normal suddenly otherwise. In PARANORMAL, a door moves slightly in the middle of the night while the homeowners sleep . . . With no visible help. A Ouija board suddenly catches fire. Footsteps, outlined in powder, appear on the bedroom floor at night. Knocks and thumps abound. All of this is recorded by a video camera set up by the skeptical, but accommodating boyfriend of a woman who senses something isn’t right in their otherwise mundane townhouse. The ending is a shocker, but even so—and there’s no spoiler here—we see only the same characters we’ve been following throughout the movie.

THE INNOCENTS (1961). One slightly paranoid governess (the excellent Deborah Kerr), two bright, cheerful children, a warm and jolly housekeeper, and a huge mansion deep in the English countryside, and memories of the children’s former governess and the absent master’s valet, both now dead. Memories . . . or ghosts? The governess sees a man’s face in a window. A woman stands, very still, on a small island in the middle of the estate’s lake, watching her . . . then disappears. The children begin to behave and speak oddly, and Kerr—who played the uber-governess in THE KING AND I (1956)—grows increasingly confused and frightening. No cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to set all right in this movie. The fact that many who see this film version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw know Kerr from KING makes her terror even more effective. Another shocker of an ending, in part because we are given is no answer to the question: Is the house haunted?

WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000). Imperfect, but the first half contains some wonderfully creepy moments created by another director (or writer; possibly both) who realized that terror lies in the familiar suddenly turning strange. Like bathrooms in which the tub fills itself with hot steamy water and words are drawn by an invisible figure on the steamy medicine chest. A front door opens by itself just as star Michelle Pfeiffer reaches for the knob. A framed photograph of her and her loving husband (Harrison Ford) keeps falling to the floor and breaking the glass; the family dog freaks out by the lake water behind the family home. Then there are the dysfunctional neighbors, one of whom disappears under mysterious circumstances. Things go a bit silly and hysterical in the last third, as if all involved in the production became impatient to get it done, but overall this is an entertaining and nicely hair-raising movie.

Nuclear fun and nightmares. Review: The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham

A review of The Dead Boys, by Royce Buckingham

The town of Richland, in Washington state, is famous and infamous as the location of the Hanford Site, the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States (it produced plutonium for most of the nuclear weapons developed by the U.S.) and the focus of the nation’s largest environmental clean up. As if this disaster on the Columbia River wasn’t sufficiently horrifying, Buckingham uses his hometown as the setting for a story that combines an unconventional serial killer, its victims, and a smart protagonist.

Twelve-year-old Teddy’s nurse mother moves him to Richland a month before the new school year begins, then pushes him outdoors to find new friends. Teddy is a smart, likeable, shy, and brave protagonist, and down by the river he meets Albert, dressed in old-fashioned bell-bottom jeans. Albert warns Teddy about the local bullies, led by a kid named Henry, and hints at a greater danger, but before he can share more, the bullies appear. Albert slips into the river to escape, leaving a bewildered Teddy to deal with Henry on his own. Teddy meets other boys around town, all of whom talk and behave—then disappear—in odd ways. Just as odd and even more intriguing is an enormous sycamore tree growing in the yard of an abandoned house next door. Fairly quickly, Teddy figures out the tree, the Hanford Site, and the mysterious boys are connected and that the tree, which scratches at Teddy’s window with long, grasping branches, seems determined to lure Teddy closer. When the tree takes drastic, dangerous action, Teddy realizes it will stop at nothing to bring him under its control, and he learns that it knows—and will use—Teddy’s deepest fears to achieve its goal. There’s a wonderful scene in which a black widow spider threatens Teddy; our hero’s decisive action made me squirm, and undoubtedly it will please everyone who reads it.

Buckingham adapts the villainous tree motif by adding ecological terror in the form of the Hanford Site, a nice touch by the author, a Richland, WA, native. The Dead Boys, of course, isn’t unique in using a tree as villain: Apple trees make Dorothy Gale’s life briefly miserable in The Wizard of Oz; hundreds of kites were lost to one greedy tree, courtesy of Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz; and Buckingham’s giant sycamore bears a strong resemblance to a gnarled tree that loomed outside the home of the hapless Freeling family in Poltergeist.

The story benefits from fast pacing and action that doesn’t encourage reflection, an asset in a story that, judged by the most lenient standards, fails just about every logic test. Why, for example, does the tree only crave 12-year-old boys? Engaging as each boy proves—and Buckingham does deft, quick characterizations of each—wouldn’t the boundless energy of 5- or 6-year-olds provide enough power for entire forests? What does the tree have against girls? Adults? Or dogs and cats, for that matter? Equally puzzling is why the police don’t seem to realize that over the decades there’s been a systematic series of disappearances among the 12-year-old boy population; has the tree cast some form of glamor over the entire town? The climax, in which Teddy negotiates the dim, dusty world of the sycamore, proved so visually confusing I gave up trying to make logical sense of it and let myself succumb to a surreal vision—it worked for me.

When I closed the book, I wondered how the boys Teddy saved would cope with their new lives, devoid of family and many familiar landmarks; and I liked Dead Boys even more for having provoked such questions. Highly recommended.

The Dead Boys Book Cover The Dead Boys
Royce Buckingham
Juvenile Fiction
Penguin
2010
201

Timid 12-year-old Teddy Mathews and his mother move to a small, remote desert town in eastern Washington, where the tree next door, mutated by nuclear waste, eats children and the friends Teddy makes turn out to be dead boys trying to lure him into becoming the tree's next victim.

Twisty, ghosty fun. Review: The Swallow, by Charis Cotter

Just two words: The Swallow.

Okay, three more words: by Charis Cotter.

If you haven’t read it, go get it–bookstore, library, friend–and enjoy. Beautiful writing. Characters that grab one’s heart and hold on from beginning to end.

Creating a new twist on ghost stories is really hard. More than a few times, as I’ve wrestled with the stories I’m writing, I’ve sighed and thought “it’s all been done! I’ll never think of anything original.” Reworking a theme isn’t bad, of course; arguably nothing new has been penned since Pliny the Younger wrote a friend about the ghost that haunted an Athens house, complete with rattling chains. So, yeah, imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and all that. Some authors, however, don’t even attempt to disguise their borrowing; more than a few ghost stories I’ve read in the past several years are obvious variations–slight variations–on The Sixth Sense (he was already dead!), The Shining, or are just plain dumb as well as derivative.

The Swallow is something different. Does it borrow? Yup. Does it do so cleverly? Oh, yeah!

Kudos to Charis Cotter for such a great story! This one is a keeper.

The Swallow Book Cover The Swallow
Charis Cotter
Juvenile Fiction
2014-09
318

Seeking solace in the attics of their adjoining houses in 1960s Toronto, Polly and Rose develop an unlikely friendship based on Rose's ability to see and talk to ghosts.