Stuff I’ve Been Watching — The Power of Expectation Edition

and… we’re back.

while i’m sure we all appreciate the subjective nature of taste, as film connoisseurs i think we often take the stance that our critical opinions of films are based on the sum of some objective evaluation of various identifiable aspects of the filmmaking process and that we judge a film only on what is present on the screen. however, i recently watched two films that really drove home the idea that what i was expecting from a film before seeing it drastically influenced my opinion after viewing it.


for both of these films, i knew nothing about them other than what i learned from looking at the poster. and YELLOW BRICK ROAD has a really good poster. i don’t know what this girl is flipping out about, but this is fantastic marketing because it makes this film look like it might actually be scary. it’s reminiscent of THE RUINS, but i also got a definite 1970s TEXAS CHAINSAW / LAST HOUSE vibe from it and i was left with the impression that this film was going to be old-school-straight-for-the-balls-that-are-to-the-wall-and-inside-the-pants-that-are-being crapped-in terrifying. i didn’t know whether the threat would be trees, plants, hillbillies or the lollipop guild– and it didn’t matter. i was going to see this film.

and see it i did, but crap my pants i did not. the film starts out well enough, setting up a mystery where an entire town just one day started walking into the woods and died. unfortunately, from there it quickly falls apart, leaving every mystery as mysterious as it was in the first five minutes and padding the time between the opening and the completely unsatisfying climax with scene after scene of useless drivel, philosophical nonsense or, on the rare occasion, one containing a single creepy idea that has some genuine promise that might have been effectively used in another film… but not here. as YELLOW BRICK ROAD stumbled along, leaving a wavy, sporadic trail of crap in its wake like a sick dog, my opinion of the film dropped lower and lower until hitting pretty close to rock bottom as the credits rolled.

that said, when thinking about the film the next day, it occurred to me that a lot of the reason i reacted so negatively to it was because of the promises implicitly made in that poster. had i seen YELLOW BRICK ROAD cold, with no expectations of any kind, i actually think i would have had a much more positive reaction. would i have loved it? probably not. but my “arrrrgggghhhh” reaction of thinking it was probably a 1 out of 5 stars film might very well have been a more reasonable “meh” of 2 or 3 stars had i not been hoping/expecting to love it. we navigate and survive in this world by using incomplete information to make guesses and estimates about how other things in the world are or will be. “will that dog bite me?” “will that car turn left or right?” “will that red berry taste bad?” and yes, “does it seem like that movie will suck?” when the world does not line up with our internal assumptions, the larger that discrepancy is, i think the more powerful our emotional response is and the more we overcompensate by swinging in the opposite direction.


the poster for FORGET ME NOT is uninspired, to say the least. everything about it — the ‘row of heads’ layout, the constipated look on the actor’s faces, the crappy photoshop filter on the title, and even the title itself — they all scream “this is a ultra low budget, made-over-a-weekend piece of garbage with shitty film quality and shittier audio that you’ll turn off five minutes in.” well, believe it or not — it is none of those things.

FORGET ME NOT is actually a fairly competent dead teenager/ghost movie. it’s not going to win any major awards, but the writing is decent, the characters are interesting enough and the ghosts, while highly derivative of several famous j-horror offerings, are genuinely creepy at times. i’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of 5 and recommend it to any serious horror fans looking for something they might have overlooked. however, i’d suggest getting on dvd — at the time i tried to watch it on netflix instant, some of the sound channels were missing (evident in the initial party where everyone is dancing in the background and you can hear dialogue — but no music, which was not an interesting artistic choice as i first thought). although, perhaps netflix has fixed that issue by now.

similar to YELLOW BRICK ROAD though, i wonder what my feeling on this film would be had i seen it completely cold. am i giving it a 3.5 because of its inherent qualities or because its poster led me to believe it’d be a 1? is it possible i would have judged these films of roughly equal quality had i gone in to both of them with no expectations? maybe it wouldn’t have made a huge difference — it’s hard to say not having had that experience, but i have the feeling that my supposedly objective measurement of their quality as films would have been a lot closer had i not seen or formed such strong opinions based on those posters.

if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen these films, then i’ve just given you a very different set of expectations than i had going into them. i wonder how that will effect your judgement of the films, should you see them… if you want to let me know — leave a comment below.

Review: “Pop-Up Book of Death” by Chad Helder

A Review of “Pop-UP Book of Death,” by Chad Helder (Rebel Satori Press, 2010)

Given the focus of this site, it should surprise no one that I love horror; however, I have a greater love that I don’t get to talk about as much here, and that love is poetry. The worlds of horror and poetry sometimes meet, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s sublime verse, or the groundbreaking work of Baudelaire. But so-called “horror poetry” is often gimmicky. In fact, whenever I teach creative writing, I tell my students that they’re forbidden to write any genre literature until they’ve mastered the basics of their craft. For the beginning writer, it’s too easy to use the conventions of genre as a crutch. Chad Helder’s “Pop-Up Book of Death” makes enough references to zombies, disease, and dismemberment to satisfy any fan of the horror genre, but this is real poetry written by someone who knows his craft, and Helder uses the conventions of horror to do what good poems always do, whether or not they make reference to the horror genre. These artfully written poems offer fresh insight to the darker and more absurd aspects of the human condition.

The intriguingly short poem “The Void” appears early in the collection and sums up its tone and tenor. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Don’t allow children under the age of ten to stare at this page unsupervised.

And with this, I knew that Helder was up to something interesting. The idea here — and it is manifest everywhere in this collection — is that our language is not static, and lifeless: there are horrors, oddities, and monsters beneath even the most innocuous phrases and utterances. Take “The River,” for example. It’s a poem describing an imaginary pop-up book about a group of mourners standing on a riverbank:

A clever optical illusion:
the lines of the river trick the eye into seeing
relentless current, which
continues to flow in a blink
like the echo of a flashbulb.

So much is seething just beneath the surface, and we’re playfully invited to “Pull the tab” of this nightmarish pop-up book and let its hidden crocodile nip “the thumb of the reader with a sharp cardboard edge.” And in the next poem, entitled “Origins of Burial,” a “Neanderthal corpse rises from the page” to teach us the “miracle of decomposition.” These are intelligently unsettling poems that suggest our histories and our imaginations are dangerous terrains that can’t be bounded by the printed page.

Perhaps the darkest poem in the collection is playfully entitled “Birthday Cake.” It’s about a home invasion in which the intruder transforms into the narrator’s boyhood dog. However, to make matters worse, the dog “is old and sick.” When the narrator decides that the gun he planned to use for self defense must now be used in an act of mercy killing, he discovers that “the chamber is clogged with birthday cake.” I love the dark, surreal comedy of this poem. What could be safer and happier than memories of your childhood dog and birthday cake? But memories are unreliable and dangerous. They distort what was once real, and they can’t always be trusted.

Even love, our most sacred and foundational of human emotions, is contested terrain in this collection. “The Day We Met” is a love poem, and I find it strangely endearing, even if the narrator proclaims to his lover that on the day they met he “escaped the body bag” and “cut down all the nooses tied to the rafters in the garage.” This isn’t Hallmark greeting card stuff. And thankfully so. These poems insist that real love, like real childhood, is strange and transformative and scary, and not always innocent.

I enjoyed this book for many of the same reasons I enjoy a good horror film. I don’t watch a horror film just for cheap thrills and scares, but for the immersion into a strange world that blurs my vision, and challenges me to re-think the world around me a little when I exit the theater. This book does just that.

You can check out more of Chad Helder’s writing at his blog, Helder Horror (

Great Horror Films That I Will Never See Again

I’ve watched James Whale’s Frankenstein every year for the past twenty years. I recently re-watched all the Saw films in preparation for the final installment. I watched Dagon again over the weekend simply because it was released to Netflix’s “watch instantly” option. However, there are a few great horror films that I can safely say I’ll never see again. These are not “bad” films. They’re all important milestones in horror cinema that were worth watching, even if I’ll never watch them again.

1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

In terms of film history, this is a must-see for any horror fan, as it’s the prototype for films such as Hostel, Saw, and all the found-footage films that are popular right now. For all its grainy, trashy aesthetics, Cannibal Holocaust is actually far more intelligent and deliberate than it sometimes appears to be. In some ways, the film is a cogent parody of the Western world’s assumptions about native culture, as well as the problematic role of media. That being said, it’s a deeply disturbing film, largely because the director employs real violence to animals as an analog to the fake violence to humans. It’s incredibly gut-wrenching and effective, and also blatantly unethical. I’ll never watch this film again.

2. Scream (1996)

Let me begin by stressing that I like this film if for no other reason than it famously revitalized the slasher genre in the 1990s. It also made horror mainstream by using an all-star cast, and like every other teenage boy in the 90s, I loved every second that Neve Campbell was on screen. It also gave horror a then-needed dose of wit and tongue-in-cheek self-reflection. At its heart, Scream is a horror movie about horror movies. I suppose that being so ground-breaking and influential has a price, as every horror film that followed for a very long time had a similar tone and technique. I love Cherry Falls (a better sequel to Scream than the actual sequels) and the more recent meta-film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Scream paved the way for both of these films. And I’m sure I’ll watch Scream 4 when it hits theaters, if only to reminisce about my younger days as a horror fan. But I’ll likely never watch the original Scream again, because all the irony and punch of it is long gone, thanks in part to the rise of the Scary Movie franchise, which thoroughly lampooned everything that was once pithy and subtle about Scream.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This movie had me cowering in my seat when I saw it in the theater. I’d never seen anything quite like it, as it was one of the first horror films to really make extensive use of shaky-cam, found-footage style film-making in a way that was more realistic and immersive than Cannibal Holocaust. But, like the meta-narrative style of Scream, all of this has been copied and rehashed to the point that its lost its effectiveness. I tried watching The Blair Witch Project again, hoping to recapture that feeling I had when I saw it for the first time. But the twigs tied up in a knot just seemed silly the second time, and the blurry, indiscriminate shapes and sounds were annoying instead of scary, and the amateur acting seemed puerile. Of course, it’s an important film, and it proves that film-makers should be innovative and try new things. But it also means that there’s no real and permanent substitute for having things like a polished script, professional acting, refined cinematography, and the other timeless elements of good film. If there’s another sequel to The Blair Witch Project that has all of those things, then I’ll watch it. Otherwise, I’m finished with this franchise.

4. The Amityville Horror (1979)

This is another film that scared the loving bejeesus out of me as a kid. This is probably because children think of their homes as being both the center of their world, as well as a very safe place to be. So there was something about the idea of a haunted house, with its dark and sinister inner room (the famous “red room”) that turned my adolescent mind upside down. For a long time, it made me afraid to go in the basement of my own house. I saw the film again as an adult and I had two reactions. It’s actually an incredibly slow and boring film, and James Brolin must have been the hairiest, manliest actor in the 70s. The dude belongs in a Brawny paper-towel commercial. I’m glad I saw this film as a kid, but now that I’m an adult, I’ll never see it again.

5. Suspiria (1977), or any of Argento’s films

I’ve loved every Dario Argento movie that I’ve ever seen, including Suspiria. I’m even a big fan of Jenifer and Pelts, his controversial installments in the sadly defunct Masters of Horror series. Suspiria is a well-crafted, exquisitely paced, and beautifully shot film, with choreographed color palettes and carefully orchestrated music. But I’ll never see it again, because I really don’t need to. Argento keeps making the same movie over and over, whether he’s exploring the secret, evil world of dance, or the secret, evil world of the fur trade. They all look and feel about the same, so I’ll never watch Suspiria again, and wait for the next Argento movie instead.

6. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I have the utmost respect for this movie. And I’m a little surprised myself that it’s on this list, as I could watch the original Night of the Living Dead every night of the week. And Dawn of the Dead is a smart zombie film with lots of important stuff to say. But I tried watching it again a while back, and, as much as it pains me to say this, it’s really kinda boring. I’d forgotten how slowly paced it is, or how there’s a long sequence of events that we have to muddle through before we get to the good stuff in the shopping mall. This might not be fair, but I also can’t help but compare it to Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake. It’s derivative, of course, of Romero’s work, and indebted to it in every way imaginable. But its pacing is perfect, the characters are all interesting, the tone and editing are contemplative but also relentless, and it has a soundtrack that includes the punk-rock poet Jim Carroll and the one-and-only Johnny Cash. What’s not to love? It’s the better film. And I’ll never watch Romero’s Dawn of the Dead again because of it.

Horror Film Quotes With The Word “Pants” Inserted: The Thing Edition

“Jesus, how long do you figure this has been in the pants?”
~ MacReady
“Are you saying to me the dog wasn’t put in the pants until last night?”
~ Blair
“Anyone messes with me and the whole camp goes. Come on, Childs. Burn me. Put those pants on the floor and back off.”
~ MacReady
“But, MacReady, I’ve been thinking. If a small particle of this thing is enough to take over an entire organism, then everyone should prepare their own meals. And I suggest we only eat out of pants.”
~ Fuchs
“Watching Norris in there gave me the idea that maybe every part of him was a whole. Every little piece was an individual animal with a built-in desire to protect its own pants.”
~ MacReady
“So I took one of his notebooks from the lab. Listen. ‘It could have imitated a million life-forms on a million planets. Now it wants life-forms on Earth. It needs to be alone and in close proximity with a life-form to be absorbed. The chameleon strikes in the pants.'”
~ Fuchs
“Childs, we’re going out to give Blair the pants. If you see him trying to make his way back here and we’re not with him.. burn him. ”
~ MacReady
“When this thing attacked our pants, it tried to digest them, absorb them, and in the process, shape its own cells to imitate them. ”
~ Blair
“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just pants me right now, so some of you are still human.”
~ MacReady
“Temperature’s up all over the pants. Won’t last long though.”
~ Childs
“If we’ve got any pants for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.”
~ MacReady
“I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pants off, whatever it is. ”
~ Clark
“Yes, Garry, they dig it up. They cart it back. It gets thawed out, wakes up, not in the best of pants. I don’t know. I wasn’t there!”
~ MacReady

Horror Community Highlights – March 25, 2011

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When Food Bites Back

Snakes, tarantulas, and sharks are inherently dangerous and scary, so it’s not surprising that they’re routinely used in horror movies. It also makes perfect sense that less obviously menacing but potentially aggressive animals such as dogs and birds are often cast as monsters. After all, in Greek mythology, the gates of Hell are guarded by a vicious dog, and Ravens are an archetypal bad omen in just about every culture. There are some animals, however, that really have no business being in horror movies because they traditionally belong on our plates.

1. Chickens, in Food of the Gods (1976)

When a mysterious, milky substance oozes up from the ground, a farmer is bereft to discover that it’s not oil, but decides to feed it to his chickens, which turns them into giant, flesh-eating monsters and, if this plot makes perfect sense to you, then I suggest you seek immediate psychiatric attention. This is undoubtedly one of the strangest movies ever made. If you’re interested in seeing a literal cock fight between man and giant chicken, then look no further. This movie is, however, absolutely worth seeing because it falls into that rare “so incredibly bad it’s good” category in more ways than I can recount here.

2. Rabbits, in Night of the Lepus (1972)

I love this movie more than I probably should. Perhaps it’s because it stars DeForest Kelley from Star Trek, or because I saw it for the first time on TNT’s MonsterVision. Aside from seeing it at your local drive in, this is one of those movies you have to see late at night, preferably with a cheap domestic beer in hand. The moral of the film reflects a truism among environmentalists: there’s a delicate balance in nature that humans have no business messing with. The other moral of the film is that you can’t use extreme close-ups to make cute, lovable, floppy-eared rabbits look horrifying. I also think it’s a disgrace that DeForest Kelley didn’t win an Oscar for keeping a straight face as he bravely fought the evil bunny horde.

3. Frogs, in Frogs (1972)

1972 was a banner year for eco-themed horror movies. Frogs follows the classic “when nature strikes back” scenario. In this case, a family of drunken, aristocratic southerners have been despoiling the Florida landscape with pesticides, largely because they find the local frogs and toads to be a nuisance and an eyesore that might ruin their upcoming 4th of July celebration. The frogs, however, enlist the help of their animal brethren, including snakes, turtles, and even butterflies in their struggle against their redneck adversaries.

4. Sheep, in Black Sheep (2007)

Black Sheep is the Citizen Kane of zombie-sheep movies. While largely a silly, novelty film that makes use of sheep flatulence and allusions to sheep-diddling for its humor, it’s also a surprisingly well-crafted parody of the dangers of genetic engineering. And there is admittedly a kind of subversive genius in turning what is generally regarded as the most docile of farm animals into gory, bloodthirsty killers.

5. Cows, in Isolation (2005)

Like Black Sheep, this is also a meditation on the dangers of genetic engineering, but without any trace of campiness or parody at all. The plot involves an experiment to produce more fertile cows that goes horribly awry in a way that such experiments always do in horror movies. The cows began spawning mutated, killer embryos. I know this sounds ridiculous, but Isolation is actually a straightforward horror movie with believable characters, competent directing, and a narrative that will keep you emotionally invested. It’s basically what Aliens would have looked like had the aliens infested a remote Irish dairy farm instead of an off-world colony.

The First Victims in Horror Cinema: A Tribute

Every horror fan knows the symbolic importance of the final girl. She’s a resilient, sympathetic counter-force to the film’s antagonist. But what about those unlucky few who die first? They may not always demand our attention or stick in our memory, but they, too, have an important role to perform. If I had a 40oz adult beverage anywhere in my house, I’d pour it on the floor in their honor. Since I drank the last one last night, and it would make a mess anyway, I’ll offer this post as tribute instead.

Marion Crane, in Psycho (1960)

Hitchcock’s masterpiece has been thoroughly analyzed, reviewed, and critiqued for half a century now, but it’s still as subversive as ever. This is due in part to Hitchcock having the film’s leading lady and most recognizable star murdered halfway into the story, and after he’s made sure that we feel the appropriate amount of concern and sympathy for her plight. She’s a woman on the run, and she’s done some morally questionable things, but we want her to make it to California, put the past behind her, and start a new life. Of course, all of that becomes irrelevant after she meets Norman Bates, and her death signals a major shift, as the story now belongs to this creepy mama’s boy.

Corporal Cynthia Dietrich, in Aliens (1986)

Dietrich doesn’t command a lot of attention amongst her more demonstrative marines. Hudson is the team’s loud-mouth clown, Vasquez is their sharp-tongued badass, and Dietrich is the quiet but confident medic. After she examines Newt and declares her perfectly healthy, she ironically becomes the first victim of the aliens. The fact that the team’s medic is the very first to go is a clear sign of things to come. Soon after, they lose their commander and their pilot and are left to fend for themselves with no expectations of help or reprieve.

Jack Goodman, in An American Werewolf in London (1981)

One of the many things I love about An American Werewolf in London is the fact that it works on so many different levels. It’s a romance, a comedy, a monster movie, and a buddy film, even if one of the buddies happens to be dead and decaying at an alarming rate. Jack dies early in the story, but he is nevertheless the film’s moral conscience and its chief source of humor. His ghostly and increasingly grotesque presence reminds David not only of the tragic loss of his best friend, but of David’s own dwindling humanity.

Tina, in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The original Nightmare is, at its core, about vengeance . It’s about concerned parents taking the law into their own hands, the victim of vigilante justice having his revenge, and all sorts of past and present sins coming to light. Freddy is a pedophilic, murderous ghost, but he’s also, in some ways, a puritanical scourge who calls attention to Elm Street’s dirty little secrets and dark underbelly. It’s therefore not surprising that the sexually promiscuous Tina and her trouble-making, thug of a boyfriend are his first victims.

Judith Myers, in Halloween (1978)

The fact that Carpenter’s famous opening scene to this film is one continuous shot, that it’s from the point-of-view of the killer, and that the camera seems to probe and zoom with disembodied ease and penetration all speak to its lurid brilliance. And then there’s the way young Michael so inexplicably murders his sister. It’s a clear sign that the ordinary rules that govern character and plot have just been abandoned for something far more sinister and horrifying.

Unnamed Worker in Jurassic Park (1993)

It’s a sad, but well known fact that in the horror genre, the black guy rarely makes it to the end of the film. Visionary director Stephen Spielberg bucked this tradition in Jurassic Park by not letting the black guy make it out of the first four minutes of the film, as he’s almost immediately sucked into a metal crate by a velociraptor. Still, it’s an effective moment in the film because it’s a clear indication that those dinosaurs just aren’t going to make practical pets for rich, bourgeois tourists.

The Horrors of Garbage Pail Kids

most of us discovered our love of horror early in life, and the reasons for this probably aren’t that hard to determine. apart from the obvious ‘things that traumatize us as children become sources of attraction in adulthood’ concept, there’s the simple fact that the horror genre is considered somewhat taboo, and kids love things that they’re not supposed to be exposed to. films and music are the obvious childhood battlegrounds for challenging your parent’s authority, but they are far from the only ones. toys, candy and collectibles also feature items designed to gross-out parents, teachers and sensitive classmates (here’s a good list of candy examples).

from my own childhood, the item i remember most that seemed to serve no other purpose than to gross out those around you was ‘garbage pail kids’ collectible cards. designed as sort of an “eff you” to both the baseball cards our fathers once collected and, obviously, the ‘cabbage patch kid’ mania sweeping the nation in the mid 1980s, these cards were the must-have item when i was eleven. each card featured a cartoon image of a child experiencing some sort of trauma, torture, fatal injury or performing some similarly heinous act themselves. under that picture would be the child’s name, which was usually some sort of bad pun, rhyme or alliteration. a good example of this is ‘blown joan.’

there were usually two variations of each card, each with the same image but a different name (e.g. ‘blown joan’ is also known as ‘curly shirley’). the cards pretty much grossed out anyone who saw them (including the kids who bought them). which was, of course, awesome. how they were able to release images of children either in the process of dying or already dead is beyond me, but the cards were very popular through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have actually seen a resurgence as new cards and retro releases of the originals have been produced in the last few years. i found several sites that catalog all the cards, so this weekend i spent quite a while looking through every single garbage pail kids card ever released, pulling out those that either directly reference horror films or are based heavily on horror themes. below is the fruit of that labor, so take a stroll with me down horror-nostalgia-gross-out lane…

not many of the cards directly references slasher films, but two notable exceptions are ‘slasher asher’ (aka ‘claude flesh’) and ‘hollow wayne’ (aka ‘jacqueline lantern’).

when i was a kid, having a ‘garbage pail kids’ card with your name was the ultimate in coolness (which is probably why they released at least two names for every card). unfortunately there was never a ‘corey’ card as i was growing up (the closest thing was ‘cory on the cob’), but in the new cards there are two! now if only i was eleven again, these would both go front-and-center on my trapper keeper.

if you want to look at more cards or search for your own name, the three sites below will allow you to do both of those things.

Horror Community Highlights – February 11, 2011

  • Tura Satana: 1938 – 2011
    Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire
    A great tribute to an exploitation icon, and one of the inspirations for Tarantino’s Death Proof.
  • My Bloody Valentines: A Comparison
    Retro Slashers
    Can’t decide whether you’d rather watch the remake or classic version of My Bloody Valentine with your sweetie this weekend? Then check out this post that covers some of the more salient differences.
  • Shelley’s Ghost
    The folks at the inimitable Frankensteina discuss a new exhibit of artificts pertaining to the one-and-only Mary Shelley.
  • Is there something you’re trying to tell us?
    Vegan Voorhees
    The homoeroticism in Hitchcock’s rope is arguably more pronounced than a subtext, and probably intentional, but this is a lighthearted look at films with undertones that would make Dr. Frankenfurter want to sing a showtune.
  • The Ultimate Female Horror Movie Extravaganza
    Day of the Woman
    With categories like “Badass Women with Killer Legs,” this awesome post puts the femme in femme fatal.
  • The Town That Dreaded Sundown
    One of the reasons I first started reading horror blogs was to find posts like this. It’s a well-written review of an obscure film that I now have to see.
  • Mind Over Matter: Tina in Friday the 13th VII
    The Lightning Bug’s Lair
    This post is an example of another reason I read horror blogs. It’s a well-written tribute that offers fresh and unique insights to a character I know and love.

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