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Non-Review Review: Colour Out of Space

Colour Out of Space is a visceral, haunting, beautiful nightmare.

H.P. Lovecraft is a notoriously difficult writer to adapt for film. It’s arguably that the best adaptations of his work have been spiritual companion pieces like John Carpenter’s The Thing or In the Mouth of Madness. There are any number of reasons for this, such as the uncomfortable racism that unpins his recurring fear of “the other.” However, there is also the obvious challenge of trying to craft cinematic adaptations of a horror often rooted in monstrosity beyond the human capacity for comprehension.

The family that stays together…

Colour Out of Space works reasonably well as an adaptation of the Lovecraft story of almost the same name. Indeed, the film is bookended by extended quotes from the source material. Director Richard Stanley’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to that story, even if there are obviously lots of adjustments that have to made in shifting the action to the twenty-first century in both setting and production. It helps that Stanley has a great deal of experience in body horror, and clearly appreciates Lovecraft’s influence on that school of cinematic horror.

However, the real beauty of Colour Out of Space lies in the way in which if feels like a Lovecraftian adaptation of a Lovecraft text. It represents a cold and cynical nightmare of curdled and metastasised sixties psychedelia, playing as a riff on Lovecraft’s resurgence within sixties counterculture. Colour Out of Space is the story of how the sixties kids who rebelled against adult authority have so readily allowed themselves to acclimatise to it. Colour Out of Space is a story about how children become their parents, albeit perhaps more literally that the phrase suggests.

Purple haze…

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New Escapist Column! “The Shining” and the Perfect Haunted House…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday. Because it was Halloween and because of the release of Doctor Sleep, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look about at The Shining.

The Shining is my favourite horror movie ever. It is one of my favourite films ever. It is the rare piece of work that offers something new every single time I sit down to watch it. As I’ve thought more and more about it over the years, I’ve been drawn to the way in which the power of the Overlook is one of scale. It is big enough that it can serve as a fun house mirror to the anxieties of America itself, but also intimate enough that the familial anxieties of the Torrance family can play out within it. It is both large enough and small enough to work as the perfect haunted house.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Amazing.

153. The Exorcist – Halloween 2019 (#–)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Doctor Bernice Murphy, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, a Halloween treat. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

At time of recording, it was not ranked the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Countdown

Countdown is a spectacular mess of a film, but also a surprisingly fun one.

Superficially, Countdown belongs to the modern school of low-budget high-concept horrors. It is build around an admittedly rather goofy premise, devotes considerable time to exploring and articulating its own internal logic, and is just flippant enough that it never entirely collapses under its weight. In terms of basic structures, Countdown is of a piece with films like Happy Death Day or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is preoccupied with the protagonists’ desire to figure out the rules of the macabre trap in which they have found themselves.

A killer app.

However, Countdown is so committed to that template that something interesting happens. Countdown never quite settles on a particular mode or genre, instead relying on the propulsive momentum of that central quest to hold the film together. So Countdown transitions wildly between various styles of horror films. It features a monster who looks like it just missed out on lead roles in The Curse of La Llorona or The Nun, leans into the fear of technology and identity that defined Cam or Unfriended, and even takes a late turn into the sort of gender-war tinged serial killer mayhem of a Halloween sequel.

None of these elements cohere. At all. However, there’s an infectious sense of fun to Countdown. It rarely feels like Countdown is motivated by anything more than the urge to get to the next scene or the next scare, which results in a very haphazard and uneven film, but also a delightfully surreal cocktail. Countdown might be pretty far from a good horror movie, but it’s an endearingly engaging one.

Nursing some legitimate fears.

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Escapist Column! “It” as a Coming of Age Film…

Hey there.

Another sample from my In the Frame column over at Escapist Magazine. This one taking a look at the success of It as a Stephen King adaptation. In particular, the fact that it works in large part because it draws more overtly from Stand by Me than from The Shining, understanding that the source novel’s horrors are the horrors that face every child growing up.

You can read the column here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Ready or Not

“It’s true what they say,” remarks Daniel Le Domas at one point in Ready or Not. “The rich really are different.”

The basic plot of Ready or Not should be familiar. A young woman finds herself welcomed into a wealthy family with an eccentric tradition. After each wedding, the new member of the family is invited to compete against the family in a game. That game can be anything, from tic-tac-toe to checkers. (“I will play the f&!k out of checkers,” Grace playfully boasts when the tradition is revealed.) However, when Grace draws the “hide and seek” card, things quickly take a turn for the macabre. Unlike other games, “hide and seek” is deathly serious. The family plan to hunt Grace down and offer her up as a ritual sacrifice.

What’s on the cards for this evening?

Although Ready or Not brings its own unique perspective to the template, the film is consciously riffing on the classic Most Dangerous Game set-up. Armed with bows-and-arrows, antique firearms and crossbows, the Le Domas family stalk their prey through their decadent mansion as the stakes gradually become clear to Grace. Ready or Not filters this premise through the lens of class and wealth, focusing on economic divide between Grace and her husband’s family. “She’ll never be one of us,” complains Charity Le Domas during the wedding, to her husband Daniel. Daniel responds, “Of course not. She has a soul.”

Ready or Not is pulpy and visceral fun, an engaging and exciting horror-comedy that skillfully blends the two genres in a way that plays to each’s strength. Ready or Not shrewdly positions itself as both a side-splitter and a skull-splitter.

The family that prays together, stays together.

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A Doll’s Place is in the Home: The Sly, Semi-Subversive Domestic Politics of “Annabelle Comes Home”…

Annabelle Comes Home is an intriguing film. It’s arguably more intriguing than it is successful.

A large part of that is down to the way in which it very much basks in its position as an unlikely lynch pin of a horror shared universe populated by a variety of ghosts and ghouls that seem to be clamouring for their own spin-off movies like Annabelle or The Nun as the eponymous demonic doll just sits back and watches. It’s a surreal spectacle, particularly for a horror movie. Annabelle herself often feels like something of a passenger in her own movie, instead a tether for a variety of episodic horror adventures.

However, there is something more subversive and intriguing happening beneath the surface of the film. As the title implies Annabelle Comes Home is a story centred on the domestic environment, on a suburban family home menaced by a sinister supernatural threat. This is a standard horror movie set-up. A lot of horror movies focus on the idea of evil within the family environment, whether coming from within or without. Annabelle Comes Home borrows a number of cues from The Shining, including the bass on the soundtrack and a possessed typewriter, but it runs much deeper than that.

A lot of horror films focus on the nuclear family placed under siege, often as a metaphor for the pressures at work in the real world. Stephen King has pointed to movies like The Amityville Horror as examples as “economic horror”, reflecting the anxieties of families sinking into debt in their family homes during the seventies. (As if to underscore the point, the real life case that inspire the film was a fraud to help the family get out of debt.) Similarly, the liberal single-parent household in The Exorcist turns back to the Church, perhaps expressing deep-seated anxieties about liberalisation or shifting cultural norms.

There is often a strongly reactionary subtext to these sorts of horror stories. It is not always a conscious choice on the part of the production team, but it is rooted in the fact that change is scary and that subversions of conventional conservative dynamics are unsettling in large part because those conventional conservative dynamics are so ubiquitous. In short, audiences tend to see conventional family units as the default, so anything that attacks or erodes that is potentially uncanny and unsettling, and so many horror movies play on that instinctive reaction.

There are any number of obvious examples of how this approach can lead to very uncomfortable and unsettling implications. The Curse of La Llorona is perhaps an obvious (and easy) contemporary example. The basic set up of the movie finds a single (widowed) mother struggling to provide for her children; she has to leave them for extended periods to work at her job, but is also held back at that job because she is a single mother. Meanwhile, a Mexican spirit invades the family home and attaches itself to her children. The result is a film that seems to be about a single mother who leaves her children open to a foreign threat.

Part of what makes Annabelle Comes Home so interesting is the way in which it seems to play with this central dynamic, how it teases out and subverts some of the central subtext of the larger horror genre to which it belongs. Annabelle Comes Home is not so much a story about outside forces menacing a conventional family within the seeming comfort of their home, but is instead a story about two young women who end up trapped inside a suburban home and attacked by the monstrous forces that the family have consciously placed there and even folded built into the structure.

Annabelle Comes Home offers a slyly feminist twist on the familiar domestic horror.

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