The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6

THE SIX-SIDED FISH TANK
by David James Keaton

When I was in first grade, I could never get a handle on Show & Tell. Every time it was my turn, I brought in a parade of nonsense that put the other kids right to sleep. Everybody else came in with stuff that had us scrambling all over each other to get a better look, and you’d think with 90% of Show & Tells just being a presentation of a kid’s favorite toy, I could have cracked this code. But I was so eager to blow them away, that I kept veering off course by bringing in, say, magnifying glasses and no sun in the room to actually burn anything, or the 12-inch single of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” that I slapped down on Mrs. Circle’s mesmerizing turntable with the flashing diamond lightshow. Yes, her name was really Mrs. Circle and she had a cool record player, which seems unlikely but probably just a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. But this song was probably my worst Show & Tell ever, as I watched everyone’s eye glaze over but did learn a lesson as valuable as anything I retained from first grade—which is never put on music and stare intently into a blank face and wait for a reaction. Music is mostly for solitude, particularly when you hear it for the first time, and a dark room like a movie theater is probably best. This is something I’ve carried with me, which became amplified by a thousand when I witnessed karaoke. So if you’re singing an amazing Meat Loaf song at the bar, and I get up and leave? Don’t take it personal. We must have made eye contact, and I just had no idea what you wanted from me.

But one day, I solved the riddle and cracked the Show & Tell code once and for all by bringing in a toy for this movie I hadn’t even seen yet. See, the toy was ages 6 and up, where the movie was, what, 13 and up? It would probably be rated PG-13 today, like all of Spielberg’s movies (I mean, he’s the dude who invented that rating with Temple of Doom, right?) But this toy? Holy crap it was incredible. It was a big plastic shark with a rubber-band mouth, and you stuck a variety of plastic trinkets on the tongue and then plucked them off one by one with a wicked-looking gaff. And once the bottom jaw wasn’t heavy enough to hold the tension… SNAP! The mouth banged shut, little plastic junk flying everywhere, kids screaming, the works. And it snapped extra hard if you life-hacked that shit like we all did and put three rubber bands on the mouth instead of one. It wasn’t dangerous or anything. It had teeth, sure, but you wouldn’t lose a leg like that poor lifeguard in the movie (the scene that almost got it an R-rating actually), but don’t worry about him either, he’ll be okay. I know it seemed like he died but if you look close, he was barefoot in the boat, but then when his severed leg floated down to the bottom… the foot was wearing a tennis shoe. That’s why this lifeguard is the badass of all time. He took a moment to put on his goddamn shoes while a shark was chomping and blowing bubbles with him like Big League Chew.

Anyway, my shark was a bit hit. We didn’t even have to play the game. I just put it together, fin-by-fin, locked and loaded the rubber-band jaw, then piled up the tongue with the junk. And these trinkets you had to fish out of its face were fascinating, by the way. Sort of like Monopoly, which could have been way better of you spent the game putting sharks on all your properties instead of houses. Near as I can remember, there was a work boot, an anchor, a wagon wheel (?), a fish skeleton, no human body parts but this big ol’ bone that might have been from a person, and a walkie-talkie, which conjured up all sorts of Jonah-in-the-whale type fantasies (“Breaker 1-9, I’m still getting digested, over…”), and also made sense considering Spielberg’s later fascination with this technology. Remember the scandal when he replaced every gun in E.T. with a walkie-talkie? This was supposed to make the movie a bit more benign and kid-friendly, but instead it convinced us kids our walkie-talkies might be lethal.

No license plate came with the toy though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. So I just plucked out this junk for my first-grade class, eyes wide and intent like a mad scientist, or at least a mildly-disturbed dentist, and the room held their breath. And when the jaws snapped shut, I knew it was coming. It wasn’t hard to figure out exactly how much junk a three-rubber-band-tight jaw could lose before it sprung, so I barely flinched at all. The kids lost it though, squealing and rolling out of the way. And maybe I wasn’t a hero for a day, but a hero for 15 minutes, and that was good enough.

I didn’t see Jaws until about a year later when it was on “cable.” I have the scare quotes around cable because my uncle was stealing Showtime with a pirate box (only the biggest suckers paid for cable in the ‘70s). It’s not so crazy for kids to have toys years before they can see the movies that inspire them. And if you think it’s weird that they made toys “ages 6 and up” for a bona fide horror movie, remember this was the ‘70s, where kids were playing with Giger’s Alien in their sandbox or watching Blade Runner on their View-Master. No, seriously, they had Blade Runner on the View-Master! Or maybe it was The Black Hole, I can’t remember. Equally scary though.

But when I watched Jaws that day with my uncle Pat, I didn’t freak out. I was 7 years old or so, and my uncle and my parents marveled at how calm I was through the whole thing. This might have been my first case of “hype,” with my relatives needling me so much about being scared that I had to prove them wrong, because while I was watching it, I kept thinking “This ain’t so bad…” Either that or there was just no way I was going to show weakness. I’d already shown enough weakness earlier in the day when I ran full speed into their sliding glass door, bloodying my nose all over it. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, which was why my aunt and uncle had put butterfly stickers on the thing so I wouldn’t make this mistake again. But they keep the door too damn clean. If I had a house made of sliding-glass doors, I’d be dead.

So when we were watching the movie, I was doing fine, cheering with everyone when Brody blew it up with that perfect shot, and that was that. Then people wandered off and I kept watching Showtime on my own.

And that’s when the cartoon came on.

I still have no idea what this cartoon was, and I’ve been unable to track it down, even in the Golden Age of internets. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who saw it, so it really did happen. But my dad doesn’t really remember it like I do. Showtime was weird back then, too. No hosts, no original programming that I remember, with just these short, animated clips to fill time between movies. They were usually darkly humorous flicks, like something they’d play at a drive-in. Showtime is where most of us first saw Godzilla Vs. Bambi, for example. So this cartoon was supposed to be funny, too. It depicted an entomologist running around in a field with a butterfly net, catching butterflies. Then suddenly this even-bigger net swoops down and snatches him up instead. Camera pulls back, and it’s a huge butterfly carrying the squirming man in his net, flying back to a big cave. In the cave, the butterfly yanks the man out, gives him a cursory glance, then smack! Sticks him up on a wall with a giant pin. The camera pulls back again to show the wall is covered with men, all impaled on pins, heads lolling, and the butterfly sitting at a desk, drumming its fingers all bored.

It’s an old turning-the-tables gag I’ve seen a hundred times since, but holy balls did it freak me out. It sent me off, running through the house screaming, and everyone was left scratching their heads, “What’s wrong with Crash?” I listened to them diagnose my meltdown, and they decided that it was Jaws after all, combined with running face-first into the sliding door, that was causing this. Those were the real culprits, not a cartoon. And I was angry at the time, confused no one else was disturbed by the butterfly, but looking back, their assessment makes more sense. The cartoon was a fable, and it had a certain logic to it. Thinking about it now, Jaws was my sliding-glass door to the nose that day. Okay, the butterfly cartoon was freaky, but that’s a simple revenge tale. Sure, Jaws might be construed as a revenge tale, too (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?), particularly today when sharks are undergoing a mass extinction and the Earth loses three sharks every second, but Jaws was weirder than all that, more alien. The water was outer space, the wrong place to be. And in the movie, any shot of some desperate swimming trying to get to the surface, but being pulled down at the very last second? That’s what got me. Isn’t this essentially what happens when a sliding glass door appears from nowhere? The idea that you’re underwater, that you’re in the fish tank with those alien life forms, only there’s six sealed sides to this tank and no exit, and the promise of sunlight from the surface will be stolen at any moment. That’s true terror. But if anybody can track down the butterfly cartoon, let me know. So I can destroy the negative.

But there’s a reason there’s a Shark Week and not a Butterfly Week on the Discovery channel. Shark Week is only slightly more ridiculous these days, as it’s mercifully pulled back from baiting the conspiracy theorist with fake Mermen and Megalodon documentaries. For a minute there, it was like they didn’t trust people to think sharks were big enough, that they didn’t need three heads or to be surfing tornados. A shark doesn’t need to be the size of an aircraft carrier to terrify. They’ve always been just the right size, meaning bigger than us. Remember the movie Mighty Joe Young? I don’t know about you, but there was something freakier about a King Kong that was somewhere in-between monster-sized and gorilla-sized, like that scary porridge that’s just right. And even a man-sized butterfly on a rampage still lives up here. With us. Not down under those sliding-glass doors, ready to rob you of any hope of escape or last gasps. Or even last thoughts.

Okay, last thoughts. When I used to work at a bookstore back in Toledo, my boss at the time told us how she’d spent summers in Arizona back in the ’70s doing volunteer work on a Navajo reservation, and one day she thought it would be great to organize a field trip to see Jaws. She said that most of them hadn’t seen many, or any, movies at all, so she hoped there would be some big impact, maybe like the Maori tribe in The Piano who stormed the stage while watching the locals put on an adaptation of Bluebeard, or the apocryphal tales of crowds panicking and running from a projected locomotive during the Lumière brothers screening of their first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Instead, she said, they watched the movie without comment, and when it was over, she eagerly went to them to debrief them about the experience. She was much more excited than they were, however, and one Navajo man’s response seemed to be indicative of the general consensus. He just said, “Big fish” and shrugged, which is a good way to remind us what was really important here, all desperate sliding-glass-door symbolism aside. That fucking fish was big enough.

David James Keaton’s work has appeared in over 50 publications. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities (Comet Press), was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead (PMMP), received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He lives and teaches in California, where the roads are made of sand fleas and avocados.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5

SHARK BOMB
by Larissa Glasser

It’s been just over forty years since Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws (1975) introduced the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), a new monster, to the popular imagination. But this “monster” was not just the product of some fevered imagination, it was a part of the natural world that actually predates our own species by millions of years. What made the film work as a sharp thriller was partly due to the technical difficulties the director had with the mechanical shark “Bruce,” and many of the fright-cues took place by suggestion (due also in part to the John Williams score). It bears repeating–horror should include what we cannot see, at least until it’s too late to escape.

I grew up on Nantucket. The Atlantic Ocean raised me. I stared at that Leviathan for hours, imagining remote, forbidden continents and the hidden forces of the deep. Around the time Jaws hit the screens, I was hearing The Beatles for the first time on my brother’s 8-track at the beach, wondering as a child and not quite sure what to make of life’s unknowns. My brain was very ripe for both the fear and awe thatJaws would inspire.

What made this monster work so well? Well, consider the ocean, the habitat of the shark. Humanity merely uses the ocean. We encroach upon that habitat for commerce, travel, recreation, dumping our trash and toxic waste. In Jaws,this gigantic, sparky fish decides to encroach in turn, mining our coastal shallows for some chow. Jaws served up a not-so-gentle reminder that when it comes to humans battling an unrelenting force of nature, we know who comes out on top. It’s good to be reminded that our dominion is tenuous, at best.

Plenty of ink (and blood) has been spilled on how Jaws shook up the Hollywood-studio model and essentially invented the summer blockbuster, so let’s focus instead that famous scene on board The Orca–The USS Indianapolis.

At this point in the film, tensions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint have eased enough for them to compare scars, drink, and share stories. When Quint gives the solemn account of his survival after the sinking of The Indianapolis, floating defenselessly in the shark-infested Pacific Ocean, the story shifts gears to a deep universal resonance that grips our attention and doesn’t let go. Quint has faced this enemy before, with more intimacy than anyone else present. The experience taught Quint more about sharks in a week than most would care to know in a lifetime. His account also lends historical context and immediacy to the already taut narrative. Quint begins his story in a clinical, almost detached manner as any survivor of trauma might, and then he dives deeper with helpful details about how people might cope with that situation: the forming of tight groups, the fighting back, the screaming. But after all is said and done, nature and its hunger almost always win the fight.

I also like how this scene reflects the intimacy of predator and prey. The eyes of the shark seem lifeless (although their senses are sharp as their teeth), he “don’t seem to be living ‘till he bites you.” Quint also admits he was most frightened as he was about to be rescued from the waters.

Perhaps best of all, Quint’s account of his survival at sea emphasizes the very real threat of the monster he and his fellow hunters face, and how ill-equipped they are to conquer it. They need more than a bigger boat. They need a bomb.

Larissa Glasser is a librarian and SF writer from Boston. She has previously published nonfiction and reviews in Harvard Review, The Boston Phoenix, and Maelstrom. She co-founded the Witching Metal band Hekseri and is a Member at Large of Broad Universe. She’s on Twitter @larissaeglasser.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 4

ALAN SMITHEE AND THE MAKING OF GUMS
by Aaron Dries

The pitching office is like a mausoleum, a place where living things came to die, to be preserved in embalming fluid and good intentions. Two executives sit at a desk in front of the young director, a jug of water on the polished mahogany between them. The director doesn’t dare drink it for fear it will make him appear weak, even though he’s thirsty. The water mocks him.
          He knows this is a test.
          “Thanks for joining us, ______,” says the woman. “We’re excited about bringing Jaws back to the big screen. We loved your last film and think you’re a perfect fit for the remake.”
          “Are you a fan of the original material?” asks the man.
          “The book, you mean?”
          The man smiles. His eyes are like coffee stains on a starched shirt. “Jaws was a book? I meant the film.” This is a man who does not sleep. He is caffeine incarnate.
          “I love all of Spielberg’s stuff. Especially Jaws. It’s a masterpiece.”
          The woman leans forward. “Great to hear. We want to capture lightning in a bottle again. Help us make this happen, ______. Give us your ideas. Pitch us.”
          Here we go, he thinks. “Well. It boils down to this. I think that if something’s not broken we shouldn’t rush out to fix it—”
          MAN: “Loves it. Loves it!”
          “We should stick as close to the original as possible.”
          MAN: “Great! I knew bringing this kid in was a good idea. I’m a genius!”
          “Great. Well, we open on a beach in Amity—”
          WOMAN: “Ah, let me stop you there. Amity, yeah, it’s nice and all, but what if the setting was somewhere a bit more upmarket. The Hamptons, maybe.”
          “Oh-kay.”
          WOMAN: “Glamour. I think Jaws needs glamour.”
          MAN: “Definitely. The original has this unappealing grit to it. It really feels like it’s set in a small beach town. Who likes sand, really?”
          He squirms in his seat, leather squeaking. It sounds like a fart. He hopes they didn’t hear it, yet suspects they did. Keep going! “So the film opens with a shark attack on this beach…in the Hamptons.”
          MAN: “Loves it! Open with a bang. The original lacked that punch.”
          “But the first film did open with a shark attack.”
          WOMAN: “Really, I don’t remember that… Anyhow, keep going.”
          “Well, the attack is brutal and shocking. But we don’t see the shark yet.”
         MAN: “Ugh, let me stop you there. We don’t need the artsy-fartsy subtle approach. We want that shark front and center. I want it leaping right up out of that water.”
          “You don’t think that to build suspense and anticipation it might help to hold off on the reveal for a bit?”
          WOMAN: “We’d like to move the story along. Up the pace. Keep it going, ______.”
          “So maybe we do see the shark. That could work. But I think we need to go animatronic on this. Old school, nuts and bolts, the most impressive and realistic movie magic machine in cinema history.”
          WOMAN: “What do you mean? For the shark?”
          “Yeah.”
          MAN: “No. Can’t have that. Audiences don’t want machines. They’ll think it looks fake. We need CGI. We’ve got the team behind Jurassic World ready to go.”
          “But it’s the tangibility of the shark in the original film that makes an impression. CGI doesn’t look real, not even good CGI. If anything, it’s getting worse.”
          WOMAN: “Hey, look. We’re an open-minded department. We can compromise on some things, just not on this. Keep going with your pitch, though. You’re doing great!”
          He bites his tongue and continues. “After this opening scene we shift to Brody, the town sheriff, and his family—”
          MAN: “I’ll stop you there. We don’t want Brody to be sheriff anymore. And we don’t want him to be a family man, either. That old house in the original? Bah. It could be Anywhere, USA. For the new film, we thought he might be the owner of the local Hilton. Jaws needs glamour, remember! We don’t want this to be Universal—it needs to be somewhere.”
          “But at its core, the story is about a man going up against a town that doesn’t believe him. It’s David and Goliath. And he has to be a father. Remember that scene in the original where Brody has all this responsibility resting on his shoulders and he’s sitting at the kitchen table with his boy, pulling faces at one another as his wife watches from the doorway. It’s moving. It’s a perfect scene. It’s so perfect it’s almost unfair to the rest of cinema.”
          MAN: “Agh, let’s cut it and move on. Nobody wants character development anymore. We’ll drop it in somewhere, sure. Moving on! We want some teenagers in this picture. Let’s get to the teenagers.”
       WOMAN: “Great idea! A group of Hampton teens. Excellent potential for product placement there. Oh, they can all be going sailing and the shark attacks! The CGI shark.”
          MAN: “Loves it, loves it!”
          “So essentially you want to remake Jaws 2?”
          WOMAN: “I think that’s easier to market in today’s cinematic climate. Sequels sell. We’ve also got a cross-deal with Marvel in place. Great, huh? How do you feel about the inclusion of a superhero?”
          “Excuse me?”
         MAN: “Not like Spiderman or The Hulk or anything. That’d just be ridiculous, right? Ha-ha! No, I mean someone normal looking, right?”
          WOMAN: “Exactly! Bruce Wayne, maybe.”
          MAN: “Loves it.”
         WOMAN: “Bruce is taking a crime-fighting sabbatical and goes sailing with these kids. And he’s the one who eventually saves the day!”
          “So it’s Batman Vs. Superman, but with a CGI shark. In the Hamptons. With kids.”
          MAN: “Great idea! I love this guy. We knew you were perfect for this.”
        WOMAN: “The shark chews its way though the kids until there’s just Bruce left. And then—oh, yes!—he remembers that in the hull of the boat, which is sinking, he’s got his costume!”
          MAN: “Loves it, loves it!”
          WOMAN: “He puts it on and jumps right in the water and attacks the shark.”
          MAN: “Batman punches it to death. Bam! Kapow! Gold, kid. Gold!
          The boat isn’t the only thing that’s sinking in this scenario. It’s the young director’s passion, too. A passion that was sparked when he was a little boy sitting on the sofa with his mother as she showed him Jaws for the first time on their old television set, the one with the crooked wire bunny ears. The magic of cinema seen through a scrim of static. His eyes were wide with fear throughout, his childish thirst for adventure building from scene to scene. And then, by the end, he was standing on that couch, cheering when the shark exploded, spraying the ocean in torrents of guts and blood, swearing to his mother that yes, yes—I DID see the dead dog falling out of the sky!
          This was a long time ago.
          The man that child grew into reaches forward and drinks from the jug of water on the table. With this act, the conversation ends, and the faces of the executives turn towards him, cold and stern, as though carved from the same granite as the room in which they sit.
          MAN: “What’s the matter, kid?”
          WOMAN (gasping): “Are you okay?”
          He puts down the glass. The water has no taste. “I don’t think I can do this.”
          WOMAN: “What do you mean? This is the opportunity of a lifetime. We’re going to change the cinematic landscape with this.”
          “Change it for better or worse?”
          MAN: “Why you ungrateful—”
          WOMAN: “Maybe this was a mistake.”
          “I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I should leave.”
          MAN: “You smug, Gen Y, know-it-all! Look at you. You look like someone just took a dump in your Cheerios. This is the last time we invite someone like you in to pitch.”
          WOMAN: “Not a ‘maybe’ mistake. A ‘definite’ mistake.”
          MAN: “Look at you sitting there, all blank-faced. Where’s the gratitude? Get out of here, kid. You’re making me sick. Ungrateful!”
          WOMAN: “You’ll have to pay for that water, just so you know. It’s not for drinking.”
          MAN: “Where’s the gratitude?”
          WOMAN: “That’ll be $47.50.”
          The young director wants to get up and leave this room forever, but he can’t. He’s spent. Stunned and shocked by the shark bite in the lilo of his universe.
          MAN: “For heaven’s sake, kid. Do something. Say something. Smile, you son-of-a-bitch.”
          But the young director does not smile. He does not show off his teeth.
          He has ground them down to nothing.

Avid traveler, former pizza boy, retail clerk, kitchen hand, aged care worker, video director and artist Aaron Dries was born and raised in New South Wales, Australia. When asked why he writes horror, his standard reply is that when it comes to scaring people, writing pays slightly better than jumping out from behind doors. He is the author of the award-winning House of Sighs, and his subsequent novels, The Fallen Boys and A Place for Sinners are just as—if not more—twisted than his debut.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS IN THE FIRST GRADE
by Nick Cato

In June, 1975, my grandfather took me (who at the time was seven years old and in the first grade), my brother (who was two years younger and hence not yet in school), and my cousin (who was two years older) to see Jaws. Gramps was a fisherman and used to pick us up early every Sunday morning to go see what was biting. We always had a great time, and for a few months before the film’s release we had asked him if he would take us to see it. In the glorious 70s, without an Internet to ruin things, gramps picked us up one Saturday morning for a 1:00 PM screening. He picked us up at 10:30, but any good fisherman knows to get places early.

The two hour wait in front of the theater would’ve been boring, but my late gramps was a funny guy. He cracked jokes the whole time and eventually had a small audience as the line grew. I believe the film had been out three weeks by then, and we took our seats not knowing what to expect. I vaguely remember reviews from TV saying the film was causing people to stay out of the water, and as far as my parents were concerned, we were going to a movie with our fisherman grandfather to see a movie about a big fish.

Besides the initial sort-of shock this first grader had of seeing a naked woman run down the beach, it was quickly forgotten when an unseen creature gobbled her up within the film’s opening minutes. I had seen Night of the Living Dead on late night TV about a year before this, but Jaws was the very first time I saw a genuinely scary film in a theater. And by the time Hooper went scuba diving and found that decapitated head in the sunken boat, we were all glued to the screen, and the sight of that decapitated head caused my five year-old brother to hop onto my grandfather’s lap, where he remained for the rest of the film.

While, as kids, we loved seeing the shark attack sequences and were traumatized by them for years, it was the amazing performances by the main cast that made the film work so damn well. To this day, whenever I see Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, or Richard Dreyfuss in another film, I simply can’t accept them outside of their Jaws characters (although I kind-of came close to liking Dreyfuss’ role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) almost as much). But he’ll always be the wise-cracking Hooper to me when push comes to shove. I actually went to see Blue Thunder in 1983, but seeing Scheider flying around in a helicopter without blowing a shark to pieces left me feeling cheated. Same for the several older films I afterwards saw with Robert Shaw. I still think they should’ve had him somehow kill a shark in Battle of the Bulge. Okay, that was ten years before Jaws, but work with me here…

I tend to think that my love for gory films came from this screening of Jaws at such an early age. Two sequences in particular (a shot of a man’s leg sinking to the ocean floor, and Quint’s nasty demise as shark chow during the film’s epic finale) really did something to my psyche. As I had been doing for about a year after my late night viewing of Night of the Living Dead, where I obsessively thought about the film, drew pictures of it, and desired nothing more in life than getting to see it again, so I did the same thing with Jaws. It consumed me. I couldn’t get those creepy images out of my mind no matter how hard I tried. And when I finally got to see the film two or three years later on my aunt’s Betamax (anyone remember those?), I enjoyed it as much as my initial screening.

I was fortunate enough to have my own Quint: my grandfather. No, he wasn’t a shark hunter and as far as I know didn’t survive a military sunken ship shark attack, but he was a life-long fisherman who took me, my brother, and my cousin to see one of the greatest films of the 70s, if not of all time. Seeing the film with him made it more special, especially when I caught him nodding in agreement every time Quint spoke about fishing or what they had to do to catch this shark. It almost made the whole experience “3-D.”

Jaws scared the crap out of everyone back then, regardless of age. But seeing it with my gramps made it a little less scary for this (then) first grader, and he made an unforgettable film even more memorable. I watch the film at least once a year to this day and can’t help thinking about him whenever Quint comes on the screen.

And I still find Quint’s demise incredibly hard to watch…

Nick Cato is the author of one novel, five novellas, and a forthcoming book on grindhouse cinema.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 2

CLOSE THE BEACHES, LEST THAT SHARK TEACH US SOMETHING
by Stephen Graham Jones

What the fifties gave the horror movie was a crop of radiation-grown monsters come to punish us for our sins. Pretty much, they were our sins, given monstrous form. They were there to teach us a lesson, just, all they that had to do that with were claws and teeth, wings and fire. These monsters were impossible, unlikely creatures simply because exaggeration was the only thing that could shake the self-satisfied fifties from its smug recliner, scare it out onto its well-kept lawns.

But by Jaws 1975 (a year before for the Peter Benchley novel), heedless scientific progress wasn’t the cautionary tale we needed to be taught anymore. Was it?

Well. It might very well have been radiation from the Venus Probe that got corpses climbing from their graves in Night of the Living Dead just a few years before. And in 1974, the acoustic properties of cutting-edge “scientific” farming equipment had done the same in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. And? Is it really any coincidence that the USS Indianapolis Quint’s the survivor of, it had been delivering Little Boy, the first atomic bomb humans had ever used on humans?

Think about it. Quint says there might have been a thousand sharks there for that feeding frenzy. A thousand sharks getting the taste for human blood. A thousand sharks cutting through the waters a ship had just gone down in. A ship that had secretly been carrying the world’s atomic bomb. Now, imagine if you will that, in 1945, we might not have completely known about radiation shielding. Imagine a loose rivet if you will, one that leaks radiation into the belly of the Indianapolis.

Now picture that irradiated portion of the hull sharing its pulsing green glow with one or two of those sharks come in to feed on the lower halves of all these sailors—that is, sharks getting a distinct taste for human flesh—and add that with what Brody researches up, about how we don’t even really know how long sharks live. Which is to say, we don’t even know if they die at all.

Then take into account that this particular shark that’s come to Amity Island for the Fourth of July (that is, when America celebrates in gruesome fashion, with mock-bombs in the air . . .), it isn’t really acting very sharky at all, is it? Granted, the initial kill we see—the drunk night-swimmer out by the buoy—that’s just a shark being a shark. Also, the shark coming up for the kid on the raft: that raft could have been a seal from the shark’s angle, right? By the time the shark knew any different, it was too late.

But we, and Amity Island, soon come to figure out that this shark isn’t any normal shark. No, this is a monster shark. This is a shark behaving in a fashion not at all in keeping with its kind.

First it sneaks into the ‘pond’—the estuary that’s supposed to be safe. Particularly, it sneaks there when there’s such better feeding out on the proper beach. And, once there in the pond, the only thing stopping it from getting to the police chief’s son is one unlucky guy in a rowboat, who quickly gets chewed through. That the son is the target is pretty obvious, from what I guess we’d have to call the point-of-view of the giant dorsal fin, as the shark pulls its first swim-by, its mouth momentarily too full for a second chomp. And, granted, there’s a way to read the story that this shark going for Brody’s son, that’s just to focus the story down to the people who matter—it’s dramatic economy. But another way to look at it is that this shark, it knows who it needs to take out, up on the land: the main authority figure. The one who wants to close the beaches.

As far as the beaches and their closing go, this shark, it’s right in line with the mayor. Which is to say, it’s aligned against Brody. And, like the mayor, it’s working events and situations in order to neutralize Brody—just, unlike the mayor, this shark has row after row of teeth, and no voting body to answer to.

This shark, it’s thinking. It’s got strategy. It can imagine a goal ahead of itself in time, and then work methodically towards that goal—unlike any of its shark brethren, all locked in the perpetual moment, as it were, operating on mere stimulus-response.

Monsters aren’t stimulus-response. Justice is so more complicated than that.

Next? Off-screen, this massive thinking shark, it takes out one of the boatful of hunters out chumming the waters—kind of a little dumbshow, illustrating again how unsharky this shark is behaving: instead of running from danger, it eliminates that danger. Understand that, in the open sea, when mating or territory or the current meal isn’t at stake, a regular shark has no reason to stick around when things get hot. No reason to go after a boatful of hunters. Unless that boatful of hunters has, say, insulted it.

Meaning? This is a shark that might have feelings.

Very unsharky. Matt Hooper should have said something about this. Or, he does, to Quint, with “You ever have one do this before?” which is followed up nearly immediately by Brody asking Hooper, “Have you ever had a great white—” but Hooper, frustrated, cuts him off with a flat, hard “No!”

No, this is not how typical sharks act.

This shark, it’s special. “Mr. White,” Quint calls it, even, lending his opposition a proper name, not just a species.

It’s getting personal, yes. Which we see when the shark, insulted by not one, not two, but three barrels being harpooned to it, proceeds to resist its own survival instinct and turn the predators into the prey. And not just in a single attack, either, but through a steadily mounting warfare of terror, as if—get this—as if maybe this shark, it’s aware that these people on the boat have interiors as well. Thoughts and feelings that can be manipulated to the shark’s advantage.

For the whole movie, this shark has been swimming closer and closer to a different identity, a different status. When it focuses all its attention on the Orca, essentially Ahab’ing Quint, it becomes a legitimate monster—a creature of monstrous proportions, acting outside its typical behavior patterns. More or less, it’s doing stuff for what we would call ‘human’ reasons, not shark reasons.

So, to wrap up already: how to make this monster?

Irradiate a long-lived shark in 1945, give it a taste for human flesh, plant a seed of human awareness in it, and then set it on a decades-long quest to finish the feeding frenzy that got cut short by rescue in 1945.

Yes, Quint is on a revenge-arc. Most definitely. He hates all sharks.

This shark, though, it just wants to finish its meal.

Can you see this shark as Quint’s pulled from the water, into his lifeboat? Can you see those doll eyes taking a snapshot or two? This is when the shark’s a “mere” three meters, say. But, thanks to the radiation, it’s already growing at an accelerated rate. Over the next thirty years, it’ll be eight times as big.

To understand this, look at Quint’s story from another angle. The Final Destination angle: sailor escapes what should have been his death, and then, a neat three decades later, that death swims up to his boat, bites him in half.

Kind of fits, yes?

And, the shark itself, it has a story as well. A typical shark, it pretty much needs two basic things: water and food. So, this shark, when it goes atypical and foregoes food in favor of revenge, it’s very much asking for justice to pay it a visit as well (for stepping outside its prescribed boundaries), and it’s only fitting that the thing that finally explodes its head, it’s the opposite of the water it so desperately needs: air (-tank).

And, note that for this read of Jaws to actually apply in a way that makes sense, it’s not at all necessary for Quint to ‘recognize’ this shark at the last moment—a tell-tale scar, say, or a missing eye, a notched dorsal fin. Really, Quint’s estimation of all sharks as pretty much just “sharks he hasn’t got around to killing yet,” that almost requires that he not distinguish one shark from the next. His own need for revenge has made him blind, has denied him the ability to discern one shark from the next. Could he, then he might elect not to smash the radio, thus severing all ties with the land and ensuring his own doom.

However, that this might be his particular monster come to chomp him, that gives the story a certain elegance, doesn’t it? It’s closing a circle that opened in 1945.

No, it’s no accident that the Hiroshima bomb the Indianapolis was smuggling across the Pacific was “Little Boy,” and that the first time we actually see actual blood in the water in this story, it’s from a “little boy.”

Neither is it any accident the “monster” in Jaws, it’s only name—aside from the Latinate—is “Mr. White”—which is a color America never actually calls itself, expect in contradistinction, when referring to all the “other” people of the world by colors.

“Mr. White” indeed.

But that comes back to bite us, doesn’t it?

That comes back to bite us in half.

Jaws is finally, and fundamentally, a story about heedless scientific progress. Specifically, it’s a story about using that “progress” against others. Jaws is a warning of what happens when we do. A bomb was dropped thirty years before the movie came out, but we’re all still living in the fallout, even now.

America, it drags an ugly, ugly past behind it.

We’re going to need a bigger boat.

Stephen Graham Jones
14 May 2016
Boulder, Colorado

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels, six story collections, more than 250 stories, and has some comic books in the works. His current book is the werewolf novel Mongrels (William Morrow). Stephen’s been the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Fiction, the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Awards for Multicultural Fiction, three This is Horror awards, and he’s made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Novels of the Year. Stephen teaches in the MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder and University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two children, and too many old trucks.

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Lights Out: A Conversation with Director David F. Sandberg

Author’s Note: Some spoilers ensue below. If you haven’t yet seen the short film Lights Out, I cannot be held responsible for spoiling its details—nor for any lack of sleep you may get if you do watch it. You’ve been warned.

“Have you seen Lights Out?” my girlfriend asked me one cold April night, as we snuggled beneath the covers to go to bed.

“No,” I said, getting comfy. “What’s that?”

“It’s a short film,” she said, and curious, I asked her if she could show it to me.

She had me grab her phone so she could find it, the light from the screen piercing the dusk of our bedroom. She stopped then, turned to me, and said, “Just remember, you asked me to show you this.” (This was after I’d made the same mistake only a couple of months earlier, when she introduced me to Salad Fingers.)

Two minutes later, she found what she was looking for and angled the phone towards me…

As I watched, my eyes slowly widened, my facial muscles slacking, and something very primitive began worming its way through my chest. I was experiencing a situation both familiar and unwelcome: that gripping, childhood terror of the boogeyman lurking just out of sight in any and every shadowed corner and half-open door. Needless to say, when the video was done, my girlfriend laughed and said, “I’m sorry, I’m a terrible person!” To which I replied, “That’s fine. Goodnight, dear.” It was quite some time before I was able to relax long enough for sleep to claim me.

Needless to say, my girlfriend and I were far from being the only victims of this short film. Lights Out has gained viral status as it continues to scare the living daylights out of people—including professional horror writers. Created for a UK film anthology group, Bloody Cuts, for their “Who’s There?” short film challenge, Lights Out is the horror-child of writer-director David F. Sandberg, and starring his wife, actress Lotta Losten.

Mr. Sandberg was kind enough to share some of his time to dish on his short film, its production, the waves it has been causing, and future projects.

BLD: You really, really perfectly captured the paranoia and panic of hiding under the bedsheets with this film. (Speaking for myself, I felt like a little kid, scared of anything outside of the safety of my bed.)

DS: Thank you! Since it was a zero budget film we had to make use of what we had. An apartment. A bed. Creaky floorboards. The story was kind of written by the location.

BLD: Starting with that initial shot of the woman walking up the hallway and turning off the lights behind her: how did you get the phantom to appear like that? It’s an immaculate shot.

DS: Since Lotta plays both characters, it’s a split screen shot, and I simply faded the phantom shot in and out with the light. You’d think a light bulb turns off immediately, but it actually fades out during a couple of frames.

BLD: In that final, terrifying shot before the lights go out of the phantom’s face…well, just what are we looking at? (i.e. was its face done with makeup, prosthetics, animatronics, SFX, etc.?)

DS: I’m a big fan of makeup and animatronics but since I don’t know how to do those things I had to do it CG. I modified and painted on a still frame of Lotta’s face and then added slight movement in Blender, a free 3D software.

BLD: You also did the cinematography to this film. Did you also edit it? (And did you score the music?)

DS: Yes, I do most things myself. Partly out of necessity, but also because I enjoy pretty much every aspect of filmmaking. Music is probably my weakest skill but at least I don’t have to pay any royalties. Though it was funny to see a short on YouTube use the “music” from Lights Out. I mean, if you’re going to steal music anyway, why not steal something good?

BLD: Lotta Losten is a natural actress. She conveys so much sympathy with her performance. How did you come to work with her?

DS: We actually dated when we were eleven years old. Then we took a break for about fourteen years, got back together and then got married last year. So we’ve known each other for a while. She’s an actress, among other things, and we help each other in our creative endeavors and work together on joint projects as well. We’ve written two screenplays together, but they’re not horror. Lotta’s not as into that as I am.

BLD: What films, TV shows, etc. have inspired you the most? And did any of them influence or inspire Lights Out?

DS: I guess everything you see influences you in one way or another. I love sci-fi as well, and especially when it’s mixed with horror, like (in films such as) The Thing, Cube and the Alien movies. It’s kind of hard being a horror fan, because most of the stuff that gets made is really bad.

BLD: What was the most recent great (or at least good) horror/science fiction film you’ve seen?

DS: I’ve mostly been re-watching things lately, like Jaws the other day. But I did go see Godzilla, which was kind of disappointing and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which didn’t make a lot of sense, but was very enjoyable.

BLD: How about literature?

DS: I read embarrassingly little fiction. Does manga count? I love Japanese horror manga, especially (from artist) Junji Ito. I guess I read some stuff online like creepypastas and SCP Foundation, but very little proper books.

BLD: Have you ever had anything spooky happen to you?

DS: The spookiest was probably when I was a kid, and during one really foggy evening, my friend and I were running around the woods not far from where we lived. We marveled over how little you could see ahead, through the thick fog. Suddenly we see a person in a cloak standing on top of a hill. As if that wasn’t scary enough, the person then pulled out a big sword and we ran for our lives home to my parents, who didn’t believe us. I’m guessing it was just a teenager having fun, but it was scary as hell when it happened.

BLD: I wonder if somewhere, someone just read that and laughed, thinking, “Oh wait, that was me!”  (Either that, or it was…something else!)

DS: If he reads it he better get in touch so I can finally prove to my parents that it happened. That’s the worst thing about being a kid; spooky things happen, and nobody believes you.

BLD: How do you feel, having this video achieving such popularity (or infamy?) online?

DS: Fantastic and strange. The film was a contest submission, and we didn’t expect it to have a life outside of the contest. When the plays on Vimeo were getting close to a million, Lotta and I sat in front of the computer refreshing the browser to see it happen. It was kind of like a New Year’s Eve countdown. It’s amazing what a 2.5- minute film can do. But I guess the fact that it’s so short, and that there’s no dialogue contributed to (it), it’s spread across the world.

BLD: How does it feel to know that you’ve successfully scared the you-know-what out of professional horror writers with this video?

DS: That’s the greatest compliment of all, if I’m able to scare someone who creates scary stuff for a living. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it more in the future.

BLD: Have you gotten any noteworthy work offers since this film’s release?

DS: Yes! I now have agents and managers in Hollywood. It’s crazy. I’m working on a feature film script now, and I’m getting sent scripts by my agents as well. I’m really excited to see what comes of all this. Maybe I’ll finally be able to make a horror film outside of our apartment.

BLD: That’s very exciting that you have a feature film in the works.  What can you (or are you allowed to) share about it at this stage?

DS: I’m not really sure what I can say, but I guess with the success of Lights Out, it’s kind of obvious that it’s based on that. When I made the short, I had no thought of a feature in mind; it was just a short. Luckily, since the short is very brief and kind of open, the feature can be anything really. But the main thing is the whole concept of only being safe in the light while surrounded by darkness where evil lurks.

BLD: Let’s pretend you had first choice to direct any upcoming film, be it officially announced or just a dream project. What would you choose, and what would you bring to it? (I’m calling it now: a new version of Richard Matheson’s Hell House.)

DS: I’ve never actually read (or seen) Hell House. I had to look it up and it sounds really interesting. I’ll definitely have to check it out.

I’d like to do a version of Day of the Triffids, but there’s already been a movie and two mini-series done, and another movie is on the way. There’s a very recent book called Bird Box (by Josh Malerman) that I would love to do as well, but it’s already in production, from what I hear. I guess the two are pretty similar in that they deal with the collapse of society and not being able to see. I guess that’s something that appeals to me, for some reason.

BLD: Would you like to add anything else?

DS: You can find more of Lotta and me at lottalosten.com and dauid.com. Or @lottalosten and @ponysmasher

BLD: Thanks, David! This was, quite frankly, very exciting.

DS: Thank you!

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Horror Films FAQ

John Kenneth Muir’s breakdown of the horror fiction genre in his book Horror Films FAQ proves to be a delightful addition to anyone who loves a good, scary movie. Referenced in the book are typical horror staples such as The Exorcist and Psycho, but Muir is not content to only point to the canon of Hollywood classics. Instead, Muir expands his scope to include films that, while under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, helped to establish periods in the genre and pushed films to new and groundbreaking cinematography.

In addition to breakdowns of the movies that helped to shape the growing culture of horror, Muir explores monsters that have made it into the common realm of consciousness, such as the vampire, werewolf, mummy, and reanimated man (re: Frankenstein’s monster), and why the genre has persisted. The work is a dense text, rife with information on the different types of films, how the films evolved, and how the genre as a whole has expanded. Muir puts his considerable movie knowledge to use in the construction of this book, referencing films as early as expressionist “shudder films” through to the sub-genre of “torture porn” which have become prevalent.

The book is set up as a series of expanded lists ranging from directors, characters, and types of horror movies, and prepares the reader for what to find in the rest of the material. Muir pulls together his knowledge of the genre with an expert eye for what constitutes “good” horror movies, constructing a broad and in-depth reference text. Muir makes good use of the sections to explain how the genre has transformed due to a number of factors, not the least of them Americans and their ever-shifting fear mentality. One of the best things about this book is the early breakdown of films by decades, to showcase the way in which media and fear have changed over time to create the scare-and-shock culture of the horror movie today.

The amount of information in Horror Film FAQ can’t be overstated. Muir has compiled dozens of pieces showcasing the best of each sub-genre, and has broken the book down to reflect such. Each section serves as an explanative dictating the way in which the film impacted the horror community, the director’s evolution, and the shifting consciousness that propels the genre forward. The wealth of information and Muir’s keen insight provide both an explanation of the films as well as a great dissection of what actually makes the movie scary. It doesn’t at all hurt that Muir has an entire section devoted specifically to Stephen King films, either.

Muir’s book is dense and vivid, but one thing seasoned horror fans may notice is the very lacking section on both zombies and television. Aside from White Zombie, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, the collective of zombie films referenced is fairly limited in scope, with heavy reliance on the Romero film culture of zombies, including Romero’s last (and arguably worst piece) Survival of the Dead. The section on horror television is also sparse, addressing new favorites such as The Walking Dead and old classics like Twin Peaks. But, there are no references to groundbreaking horror series such as Tales from the Crypt, Dark Shadows, or The Outer Limits, though there is a beautiful treatment of The Twilight Zone included.

Beyond the first glance, this book serves as a great beginners text for not only knowing which movies to see, but also for people seeking to have a deeper understanding of the genre. It provides a core understanding for the evolution of the horror movie, and its gradual turn from films bent on simply spooking an audience, to films that are as effective as they are emotive, introspective, and, in some cases (especially in the new day and age of “torture porn,”) disturbing. John Kenneth Muir puts to use an expert wealth of knowledge and keen introspection to render a reference book that would be a welcome addition to any collection.

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Blood, Sweat and Drool: A Conversation with Director Jeremiah Kipp

When Shock Totem put out a call for filmmakers who’d like to have their work featured on the site, I bet that they didn’t expect to get anyone near as accomplished as Jeremiah Kipp.

Kipp, a short film writer/director, meshes art film heft and horror film content with a polish and style all his own. The combination seems to be working out for him as his work has been featured in festivals and garnered numerous awards.

Jeremiah sent us three films and was kind enough to sit down with me for some questions. Check out the films embedded below (WARNING: NSFW content) and then read on for our conversation.

Adam Cesare: The three films you sent to Shock Totem all share elements of genre films, but I wouldn’t call any of them genre. Are you a fan of the horror genre? How would you classify your work?

Jeremiah Kipp: I love horror movies and have found it to be a wonderfully flexible genre. What’s interesting to me is when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they called it a romance, but not in the Hallmark sense of the word. Romance at that time meant it has sweeping elements of the fantastic. And how would you classify a movie like Don’t Look Now, the intensely dark story of a couple in Venice haunted by the death of their child and perhaps communicating with her beyond the grave? It feels like a drama and yet has a sense of tension and terror. I would call it a horror movie. I feel like the films I’m making might fall into that category. I’d be proud to have them called horror films, but am content if people find them to be beautiful and macabre.

(more…)

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Night of the Living Dead

Arguably the scariest offering from the 1960’s, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is more than the average zombie flick. For starters, it is the original zombie movie, and its original incarnation has served as inspiration for the myriad of humans-eating-humans in media for the last decade, most notably with television/graphic novel series The Walking Dead. In fact, at New York Comic Con in 2012, the creator of the series said his show was to Romero “What Fifty Shades of Grey is to Twilight.” Epic fan fiction. Even Roger Ebert, a budding critic for the Chicago Sun-Times regarded the film as “…something else.” At the time there was no rating system, and often children would show for the monster movies. No one expected the Romero film to elicit such a visceral reaction.

Though Romero’s zombies were the stuff of nightmares, the film has a very political and social focal point. It plays on many of the themes from the 1960’s—a time of civil unrest and dissension among the masses, and was one of the first horror films to feature an African American lead. Much of the dialogue from the film was ad-libbed, and though there was a script, it was Romero’s intention to capture as much surprise and candor from the actors, often telling them to “explain” a situation with no further notes than that. In many of these cases, there were only one or two takes before Romero moved on.

In a time when cinematography and film were in their prepubescent age, Romero brought a very new—and very dark—insight into what a horror film could be, and how it could touch upon the nerves of an already turbid and volatile apex in a societal realm. Though initially intended to be a dull-witted truck driver, the character of Ben was restructured by the actor Duane Jones. Jones, well-educated and mannerly, decided that if he were to play the character, the character should also be a reflection of the kind of people he knew. He once said he feared that if Ben appeared a lack-wit, that the audience would have a hard time liking him as a hero and respecting him as a leader.

The grainy black and white of 60’s era cinematography adds an additional haunting aspect to the film, the focal point of the movie is not the monsters themselves, nor the fear of them. The true core of the film is the fear of the unknown. In a world where the dead stalk the earth, they are a known fear. But the unknown fear of other people is in finding that, when faced with our own mortality, most people become monsters and would commit horrifying acts to save their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, and the moral codes that act as a cornerstone of our society and civility dissolve in that. The film seeks to explore what constitutes “moral” and “immoral” in a world verging on apocalyptic chaos.

As a movie, the acting is brilliant and the film itself pits strangers in a truly life or death situation to determine what manifests “good.” In a world where the dead come back to life as shambling monsters of their former selves, Romero executes a level of fear—not only from the dead rising, but from those of the living—rendering seven strangers struggling to survive in a world of the sick, the dying, and the dead, proving that the scariest monsters are not creatures of the imagination, but rather are people caught between the fear of death and the fear of the unknown.

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Assessing James Wan

Like most people, I’m wary of horror sequels. Even more so when the first film is a favorite of the genre. But sequels, like reboots, are pretty inevitable these days, and I always hope that at the very least the original films themselves aren’t watered down by what comes after.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is upon us. Before I head to the theater, I thought I’d give the original a quick revisit, along with the rest of director James Wan’s body of work. Insidious struck me immediately—and continues to do so after a few more viewings—as a horror film that gets so much right. I often watch scary movies and find myself thinking of subtle, simple ways that would have improved a scene or a particular shot. “Show the ghost from that other angle.” “That should have stayed mostly off-camera, where it was way creepier.” “You just missed three chances to slip something into those shadows.” I’m always mildly shocked by how horror directors miss genuine ways to subvert the norm and prevent yawns. What seems like common sense is usually ignored.

For almost all of Insidious, I didn’t have a single one of these thoughts. The story follows the family of a little boy who falls into an inexplicable coma and becomes targeted by spirits. Early in the film, the family makes the rare but wise horror-movie decision to get the hell out of the house, but since it’s the boy who is haunted and not the home, their troubles move with them.

The tension is well-paced and dialed up slowly, perfectly. The music is incredible, reveling in horror tradition. Tone, atmosphere, dread…Wan knows what he’s doing and manages so many great shots with a pretty limited palette. There’s a scene in the baby’s room where if you’re paying attention to the curtains, you’ll glimpse one of my favorite horror moments. Another impressive sequence takes place in the second house—watch the long tracking shot where the mother is doing chores and passes the laundry nook on her way out to the trash bin. The scene ends with an eerie sight, but much more subtle is the precursor almost hidden in the middle of the shot.

Insidious does come close to derailing itself when the film ventures into the astral projection realm known as the Further. It falls prey to the old mistake of showing too much of the monster, who does, admittedly, look a bit too much like Darth Maul. But the creepy slam-dunks greatly outweigh the meh. Wan really came into his own with this film, and after three years Insidious holds up well.

Speaking of sequels diluting the impact of originals, Saw tends to be lost in the increasing silliness of the 78 films that followed in its wake. It’s easy to forget that the first one was actually pretty great. Director Wan was only 27 years old when it was released, and the poise displayed in such a gritty, borderline torture-porn context is still impressive. Never mind that the rest of the Saw films actually were torture-porn. Wan had little to do with those.

His next two films offered nothing special, as Wan hadn’t quite tapped into his ability to elevate tropes. Dead Silence (2006) is a typical “evil murderess killed by villagers seeks her revenge from beyond the grave” tale with some nicely spooky moments sprinkled into a clichéd plot with an even more clichéd twist ending. Death Sentence (2007) found Wan sliding over into the ultraviolent revenge flick territory best navigated by Chan-wook Park of Oldboy fame. Kevin Bacon plays a regular-guy executive suddenly thrust into that ultraviolent world, and the whole thing is forgettable.

The Conjuring, though. Wow. On the strength of Insidious, I already had high hopes, and Wan managed to somehow exceed them. I hesitate to call anything a perfect horror film, but it’s up there. And it’s “based on a true story,” which often proves restrictive. Considering that the “true story” also revolves around several tired tropes of the genre, the film is even more of a triumph. Here we have the evil witch terrorizing from beyond the grave. The secluded farmhouse. Bumps in the night. Paranormal investigators. Demonic possession and the exorcism in the final act. So much been-there-done-that mushed up into a brilliant, effective, and chilling two hours.

Ed and Lorraine Warren, a demonologist and medium known to most for their after-the-fact dabbling a few years later in the Amityville Horror case, agree to help a family in 1971 at a Rhode Island farmhouse. The Perrons—mom, dad, and five daughters—are being tormented by various ghostly happenings, which quickly escalate from strange noises and dead people glimpsed in mirrors to outright dread. Wan employs many of the same devices he and countless other horror directors have relied on throughout the years, but something in his sure hand and sense of pacing sets him apart. He knows just the amount to show you, and when, even if it’s nothing you can actually see.

There’s a scene surprisingly early in the film that makes a mockery of most entire scary movies: One of the girls is trying to sleep but something keeps yanking her down the bed. First she thinks her sister’s playing tricks; then she peeks under the bed. It’s a simple scene, shot with goosebump grace to culminate with the audience staring at a huge patch of shadow behind the bedroom door. There’s something there…but you can’t see it. The tension stretches out, almost tangibly elastic…but still you can’t see it. It’s an amazing shot, and even though the remainder of the film builds upon it to achieve even more greatness, my mind has continued to linger on that chunk of blank black. Along with the hallway shot in The Exorcist III, it will never truly leave me.

Oh, and I had red marks on my leg from my girlfriend’s digging fingernails. She was a coiled wire for nearly two hours. That’s as sure a rating system for horror films as anything. Five out of five fingernail scratches.

The Conjuring already has a sequel in the works, based on another of the Warrens’ cases (cue hopeful apprehension). And now, as I write this, Insidious: Chapter 2 is debuting in theaters. Time will tell if it can stand next to its predecessor. I’m tempering my expectations using the Sequel Meter, but Wan is just too good at what he does.

Wan has proven himself to really get the construct of a horror film. I’ve watched so many others fail at it for so long, so it’s refreshing that we have a director who’s changing the game, albeit in a subtle, old-fashioned way. He doesn’t need gobs of CGI or wild, ambitious stories in order to work his magic. There’s often a knowing wink to classics of the genre, even as he refreshes them. And he’s still young and only now reaching the peak of his ability. With back-to-back efforts as wonderful as Insidious and The Conjuring, his previous two duds are entirely forgiven.

I’ve been tempted in the past couple of years to claim that the horror film genre is entering a renaissance. I’m still not committing to those words, but Wan is edging me closer.

I hate to end on a downbeat note, but the fact that Wan has signed on to direct the seventh The Fast and the Furious movie gives me pause. Hopefully he’s just cashing in on some megabucks in order to fund his next dose of scary awesome. I’ll be in line for the horror, although I’ll be skipping Vin Diesel’s latest stunts, as I have six times before. For now, let’s cross our fingers that the new Insidious doesn’t wreck everything I just wrote.

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