As as become a tradition here at The A.V. Club, in honor of every creepy kid’s favorite holiday, this year we’ve once again summoned our experts in the art of horror to put together a hypothetical 24-hour movie marathon guaranteed to keep you up at night. (Beyond, you know, the 24 hours you’ve already been awake.) And since we got such a hair-raising mix of films in the 2014 edition of this feature, we’ve decided to once again turn to 14 genre filmmakers for their recommendations.
As we did last time, we asked each director to pick one film, and we stuck to directors who are relative newcomers to the horror genre, with a few notable exceptions. (You’ll have to read on to find out who.) Like the last time we put a list like this together, there’s no unifying theme, although certain patterns—like an appreciation of a good old-fashioned haunted-house tale—do emerge like vague specters from another plane of existence. We even had one repeat from our 2014 feature, proving that the love of Clive Barker runs deep among his fellow fright fiends. As always, readers are encouraged to try this at home, a task that gets easier every year thanks to the proliferation of streaming services. Happy Halloween!
Noon: The Conjuring (2013)
After his experience shooting Trollhunter, Norwegian director André Øvredal wanted to try something different. He achieved that goal with The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, a lushly filmed, tightly controlled horror movie that uses proven horror filmmaking techniques to intense effect. To kick off our marathon, Øvredal picked another masterfully executed, old-fashioned tale: James Wan’s 2013 ghost story The Conjuring.
The A.V. Club: Every year, we have a horror-themed week around Halloween, and we talk to directors, and we ask them to pick a film for a 24-hour horror movie marathon. What film would you pick to go first?
André Øvredal: Wow. So many, God. For Halloween, it depends on the audience, because so many movies that are great that inspired me are a little bit dated today. But I would say, a movie like The Conjuring is amazing. That’s what inspired the Jane Doe elements [in my film] specifically. So, I would definitely recommend that.
The A.V. Club: Why that one in particular?
AO: It’s just such a great, well-constructed piece of horror cinema with a very modern language. And it’s just classical in every way. It doesn’t go into fancy styles, or whatever is the thing of the moment. It’s really well told, and I think James Wan is the modern master of horror, like Wes Craven and all those guys back in the day. It’s a very mainstream movie, maybe a surprising thing [to pick], but I really loved it.
2 p.m.: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Nicolas Pesce’s debut feature The Eyes Of My Mother views its deeply disturbed heroine through the lens of hardy, immigrant-born midcentury stoicism, and Pesce chose a similarly controlled-yet-disturbing film for our marathon: The Night Of The Hunter, Charles Laughton’s classic thriller starring Robert Mitchum as a killer who disguises himself as a preacher. The fact that both films are are shot in striking black-and-white doesn’t hurt.
Nicolas Pesce: It’s the movie that was most inspiring to me for The Eyes Of My Mother, and it’s a movie that is shockingly underseen. And to me, it ranks up there with Psycho, and I think that there’s a lot of movies that steal from it now, and so many people have just never seen it.
AVC: There’s so much menace in that film.
NP: Yeah, and it’s so dark and fairy-tale-esque at the same time. I think [Robert Mitchum’s character] is a character archetype that we still see, and that’s the beginning of it all. Night Of The Hunter is a movie that beautifully encapsulates everything that Gothic horror is going for.
A.D. Calvo’s new film, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, takes its cues from ’70s slow-burn horror cinema, emphasizing melancholy atmosphere over shocks and scares. His pick for our marathon, Burnt Offerings, retains that same eerie mood, down to the elderly relative living in the attic.
A.D. Calvo: I would recommend a film that I think people can get on YouTube now, Burnt Offerings. It’s got Karen Black, and Oliver Reed, and an amazing performance by Bette Davis.
AVC: That’s some pretty late-period Bette Davis.
ADC: Yeah, totally. Totally. And she’s great in it. It’s just a good haunted house movie.
AVC: Is it more Gothic, or…?
ADC: I guess you could say that. It’s not too Gothic. But it’s definitely a haunted house movie. There’s a family, and they’re all there at this mansion together and the place is haunted, and there’s an aunt who lives upstairs in the attic. The film that we just played here [at Fantastic Fest] definitely pays homage to this film, by Dan Curtis. I love it. I’ve watched it numerous times over the years. I first saw it as a kid, back in the late ’70s—I saw it on Channel 11 or something like that—and it just stuck with me, and I’ve revisited it numerous times over the years. I love a lot of those films from the ’70s.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was a word-of-mouth hit, announcing the arrival of a visionary talent. Her new movie, The Bad Batch, shares that same strength of vision, and Amirpour was very confident in her pick for our marathon as well. As soon as we explained the concept of the feature, she answered without hesitating, “Black Moon.”
AVC: Why Black Moon?
Ana Lily Amirpour: Because I don’t know exactly what it is. I can’t shake it. It’s got bits—some things that are so familiar, yet I feel like I’m going on a fantastical journey, yet every bit by itself is really familiar. And it’s sexual and terrifying. Yeah, it’s like—I could almost smell the hormones in that movie.
AVC: Have you seen it a bunch of times?
ALA: Yeah, I love that movie. I just got into that movie when I was editing Bad Batch. It’s one of the things I really got into. I’m working on my next movie right now, and I discovered Black Moon and was like, “Oh, yeah.” The movies I’m inspired by right now—Black Moon is the one to answer [your] question, but I also love Last Tango In Paris right now, I always love The Neverending Story, and I love Superman II, especially the woman [Ursa], the bad guy, with the black hair. I just love her look.
But yeah, Black Moon. I’m obsessed with it.
AVC: Well then, it’s part of the marathon now.
7:15 pm: The Innocents (1961)
Haunted-house stories are a dime a dozen, but how many of them unfold against the tumultuous backdrop of 1980s Tehran? Under The Shadow, the first feature by British-Iranian director Babak Anvari, premiered to rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where critics compared it to such new classics as The Devil’s Backbone and The Babadook. But Anvari’s influences reach back further, to a 1960s British chiller that blurred the line separating psychological and supernatural horror.
Babak Anvari: It was a toss-up between this or The Haunting by Robert Wise, but I went for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents because, you know, I’m based in Britain so it makes more sense. [Laughs.]
AVC: In some ways, they’re very similar movies. They’re both sort of the grandfathers of the “are the ghosts real or in the imagination of these characters?” There’s a little bit of that in your film as well.
BA: Of course. Basically The Innocents and The Haunting were huge inspirations for me when I was working on Under The Shadow because of that and also because my stories are very gothic stories, but in a different setting. It’s the mother/child haunted house, just like The Innocents. And also, like you said, it’s that classical horror that sort of focuses on repression and how it could manifest itself. That was a good inspiration for me, a reference point. And I’m a big fan of the book that it’s based on as well, The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James. Which is such a wonderfully ambiguous book. You can never tell if she’s imagining it or if the ghosts are real.
AVC: It might be easier on the page to keep that ambiguity up. On screen, you have to be very careful, because it can come across as cheating if you’re being inconsistent about which of the characters are seeing what.
BA: Exactly. It’s tricky, but The Innocents does it really well. One of my favorite moments is when the main character, played by Deborah Kerr, is on the boat and she’s on the riverbank, and there’s, like, a figure sitting. But it’s done so brilliantly because you cannot tell if it’s a lens flare or if it’s a figure. Literally using cinema techniques, Jack Clayton tried to recreate that ambiguity, which is fantastic.
AVC: One of the ways it’s influenced horror movies is the trope of the figure in the far distance and using deep focus photography to put something really far back in the frame. That’s such a crucial part of horror-movie language.
BA: Exactly. Have you ever seen the BBC production of Whistle And I’ll Come To You? It’s based on a story by M.R. James about an old guy who finds a whistle on a beach, it’s an old whistle and when he uses it he feels like there’s someone following him. And that figure is always way in the distance as well. It’s kind of like It Follows.
AVC: I’ve never seen that, but it sounds cool. I’ll have to check it out. Another thing about The Innocents: Jump scares tend to get a bad rap sometimes, but doesn’t that movie having a really, really scary one?
BA: Yeah, there are one or two moments actually. Are you talking about the face in the window? That always gets me.
9 pm: Race With The Devil (1975)
Mickey Keating puts out films at the pace of a ’70s exploitation director—he’s released two so far this year, Darling and Carnage Park, and has a third, Psychopaths, currently in post-production. Keating’s films are also inspired by vintage aesthetics, and for our marathon he chose Race With The Devil, a thrilling hybrid between a smash-’em-up car chase movie and a Satanic horror film.
Mickey Keating: My pick would be Race With The Devil, to hurtle us into the evening.
AVC: There is something kind of Satanic about Texas. Is this is a favorite of yours?
MK: Yeah, it’s definitely a favorite of mine. And since it’ll be the evening and everybody will be thinking about dinner and wine, it’s a great one to show, because it’s loud, explosive, and super quick. Jack Starrett’s career as a director is intriguing to me. He’s a master of motorcycle stunt work. I love a lot of his films, but this one’s his best, in my opinion. The plot is so simple, but it impressively satisfies all of the cravings you’d ever have for a desert-set Satanic chase movie. The violence and paranoia still hold up, I think.
I saw it for the first time back in college and it blew my mind. I can’t say for sure how many dozens of times I’ve seen it since.
10:30 p.m.: Eraserhead (1977)
Two films in two years: The name Oz Perkins is about to ring a lot more bells, at least among discerning fans of atmospheric horror. The writer-director’s second feature, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, is an immaculately slow-burning ghost story, dedicated to his famous father, Psycho star Anthony Perkins. It hit Netflix on Friday, ahead of his equally chilling first feature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which A24 will reportedly release next year. Both films create the elongated dread of a nightmare—something that’s also true of Perkins’ unclassifiable choice for this marathon.
Oz Perkins: Eraserhead is one of those movies that, I feel like, we watch it when we’re younger and all we can think is, “Wow, that’s fucking weird and that’s disturbing and that doesn’t make any sense to me.” But I feel like even when we sort of feel those… I don’t want to say “dismissive” things about it, but we sort of miss the movie just by responding to it as, “Man, that was fucking weird.” But even when we have that limited reaction to it, I feel like the movie stays with us in a really unsettling way.
I saw it again after I’d had kids, as strange as that sounds, and it was the most unsettling, funniest, darkest examination of the fear of adult responsibility and the fear of having kids and the fear of being a man and the fear of having a sexual organ and all these sort of deep-seated adult fears which, when I saw it for the first time in film school when I was 18 or whatever, I had no idea it was about any of those things. And the deep, the sort of really deep coding that David Lynch does with his movies, when you finally find the key and you unlock the system of what he’s doing—I find it to be so baffling and so beautiful and so textured and so horrifying. For me, that’s an affecting horror picture.
AVC: It’s funny that you mention the idea of watching it when you’re younger and not really understanding what you’re seeing, just absorbing as this strange object. It is a little bit of a gateway drug to avant-garde.
OP: [Laughs.] I think that’s great. Absolutely. And I love the whole story behind it. Because no one told him he couldn’t do any of that. Everyone sort of just said, “Yeah, do whatever you want, man,” and then he did that. It’s really empowering. Every time I watch it, I feel extra inspired, extra empowered.
AVC: Do you feel like it’s had an influence on your own filmmaking?
OP: Just the fact that sound is so vital to all of David Lynch’s movies, but that movie in particular. The soundscapes, sort of the grinding of everything, the low hum of everything, the textural atmospheric noise that’s a signature for David Lynch. Maybe it’s the black and white, maybe it’s the very sparseness of the narrative, but the idea that nothing is quite finished until you’ve found the correct sort of soundscape has been, in my very brief career, a very important reminder. I really struggle when I’m making movies to feel like they’re done. And of course, they never really are, but you know, to feel like “I could hand this over.” But in the two movies I’ve made, once we’ve been out of the mixing stage, I felt 300 percent better about the movie.
AVC: Audiences will put up with a movie that does not look great. They will not put up with a movie that doesn’t sound great.
OP: Absolutely right. Absolutely right. And Eraserhead was the patron saint movie for me when I was making my first movie and there was a lot of stress, as you can imagine, around being a first-time director on anything, let alone a first-time director on a movie that was being shot in 40 degrees below zero with financing that we were all kind of scared about. On the night before the first day of shooting, I couldn’t sleep at all and watched Eraserhead to soothe me. To feel that envelopment in sound was cozy, in a sick way.
AVC: Lynch’s relationship to the genre is interesting. He’s like a horror filmmaker who doesn’t make straight horror movies.
OP: And not to relate to him even a little bit, even though he’s obviously a god of mine, I’ve been lucky to sort of get that same moniker hung on me, which I couldn’t be happier about because straight horror movies are what they are. Of course, some of them are delightful and delicious, but most of them are not. It should be about taking the horror genre as a ceremonial—like a vestment, like a ceremonial robe. When you do something different, it’s exciting to me, and to look at his movies, like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, as horror pictures? I’m with you. They are, but they aren’t, and I find that profound.
AVC: Is there a scarier scene in all of movies than the Winkie’s Diner scene in Mulholland Drive?
OP: [Laughs.] It’s amazing, yeah. “You’re standing over there, exactly. We go around the back.” It’s amazing.
AVC: He’s very good at capturing the environment, the feel of a nightmare. Your first film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, opens with a nightmare.
OP: Dream sequences, again—there’s a few moments on screen that impact us when we’re growing up and one of them was definitely the first dream sequence in… is it the second episode of Twin Peaks? The third episode, maybe?
AVC: The second one, with the backwards talking.
OP: With the backwards talking and the red dream room and the midget and all that. For me as a kid, however old I was at the time, 13 or something, that was devastatingly inspiring to me. You certainly couldn’t do things like that on television when I was that age. And I didn’t know you could lean so much of your storytelling on something so abstract and have it be so vital and have it be so important and have it be so essential to everything, that you would couch so much importance in something so abstracted was daring and scary. And it was back in the day when you saw something on TV and then you had to wait a week before you saw anymore. That dream sequence always stayed with me, and the power of using it as an expressive tool to say, “I can say whatever I want in as abstract a way as I want,” is… I can’t imagine making a movie without one, let’s put it that way.
So much good—well, let’s say “affecting”—horror moviemaking is about what’s hidden, exploring what we don’t know, exploring what we can’t quite see, exploring that which hides from us. Lynch’s use of coding is brave. What better device than a dream sequence to deliver coded language to an audience? “Here, I’m showing you what I mean, but I’m showing it to you in a secret way, now come along while we fiddle with it and unwrap it and reveal what it actually means.”
AVC: He embraces the irrational, too. A lot of horror movies go overboard explaining the monster or the evil, and Lynch is definitely the type of filmmaker who says, “This is much scarier if it’s something that we’re not burying in exposition.”
OP: Explaining the monster is always the worst part, right? It’s always the part we dread. As writers and as audience members. Please don’t explain the monster to me! The most prurient example being something like Don’t Look Now where, by the time they get to the end, just don’t tell me anymore about any of this. There’s a dwarf with a red jacket—that’s all. Let’s not go into this anymore. It’s enough. Let’s never explain the monster.
AVC: That’s the prequel trend occasionally, too, where we need to see—
OP: Oh god.
AVC: —we need to see Leatherface as a child, we need to see Hannibal Lecter as a young man.
OP: We need to know that Michael Myers—Mike Myers?—that Michael Myers’ mother was a stripper. You know, that’s why he’s upset. Yeah, let’s not.
AVC: Last question: Any idea when A24 is going to release The Blackcoat’s Daughter?
OP: I wish I knew exactly when. There’s been a little bit of stumbling around, some legal stumblings. I wish I could tell you a date. I don’t know. I assume it’ll be in the first quarter, but I can’t say more than that.
Midnight: Jaws (1975)
Greg McLean knows monsters: giant outback reptiles, vengeful Anasazi spirits, and smiling Crocodile Dundee types who will turn you into a head on a stick. But as possibly the most seasoned director we spoke to for this feature, the Aussie genre pro also understands the value of not showing the monster—an approach he partially learned from one of the most famous creature features of all time. With the Wolf Creek miniseries now in full swing, a third Wolf Creek movie in development, and the death-match thriller The Belko Experiment coming soon to theaters, we spoke with McLean about the movie that made the whole world afraid to go swimming.
Greg McLean: Jaws was one of the first movies that I saw where it did something to me, quite honestly, that I’m sure it did to many people around the world. The fear in the movie was so profound and so well-done that it made me scared of going in the water. Even in the bath or the shower, because it’s psychologically so cleverly done that you have this fear of this unknown thing and it’s really because of someone’s skill with creating a fear of something in your mind. And it’s something in the shock—the emotion of what you can’t see below the water that’s really terrifying. And when I saw that movie, I realized the power of that. The power of implication and the power of suggestion. And what a brilliant filmmaker Spielberg was to be able to capture the essence of what the fear of a shark is. It’s beyond any rational fear. A pure terror. So obviously the movie is amazingly entertaining and has so many great aspects, from the characters to the story to the writing. But as a horror film, to be able to capture something that is so profoundly terrifying for everyone around the world is just an amazing feat. I’ve always been a huge fan of that film.
AVC: How old were you when you first saw it?
GM: I think it was early, because I was living in a small town in Australia. We got everything much later than the States. I’m trying to think of what year it came out.
GM: ’75. So I would have seen it when I was like probably 13 or 14. So, yeah, quite a bit later than it actually came out.
AVC: You saw it on the big screen?
GM: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s one of those things that makes an impact on you. Later in my life, I made a movie called Rogue. It’s my kind of homage to Jaws in many ways, in the sense that it’s a film about a group of people who go on a tour of the northern territory of Australia and they’re attacked by a giant crocodile. And there are many throwbacks to Jaws in the sense that it’s really a character piece. It ended up being described as a serious big-monster feature with a big crocodile rather than a shark. But I think that movie was really all about trying to capture the great characterization and same sense of fear that Jaws did.
AVC: With Jaws, the story was that Spielberg had that mechanical shark that wouldn’t work and necessity became the mother of invention.
GM: Right, and that’s now such a famous, well-known story that they had this shark and they couldn’t show it because it didn’t look very good and it didn’t work, inadvertently creating an entire method of how to do a creature film. When I came in 2007 to do [Rogue], audiences had been used to seeing things you could never show in the ’70s. Our movie ends with a 20-minute sequence where you see the crocodile fully on screen because obviously we had CGI and the ability to create it realistically. But we also actually created two fully animatronic crocodiles, which we didn’t necessarily have to do. But I was just so adamant that we had something physical on set for the actors to play with. Which is the way you would have done it back in the day. And animatronics have come a long way as well. It was kind of interesting creating a creature feature these days without the problems you would have had back then. Particularly in those days, cameras were bigger. You needed more lighting. And these days it’s so much easier to create that kind of creature effect.
AVC: The best modern monster movies have a mixture. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg used both animatronics and CGI because animatronics have this physicality that CGI never has.
GM: Right, and I think even the new Jurassic Park has nothing on the original. You look at that first Jurassic Park movie, it’s still flawless today. And the mechanical elements are still so fresh and amazing. I don’t know if anyone will ever do better than that.
AVC: Physical and animatronic effects had gotten as good as they were possibly ever going to get, because after that, the entire industry shifted toward digital effects. So the animatronics you’re seeing in Jurassic Park are still fairly state-of-the-art.
GM: That’s right. They were actually planning to make that movie with stop-motion. Like all of the animation sequences that you see there, they were actually doing tests where they were doing stop-motion animation. In the same way they did the Tauntauns and the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. That’s what they had planned. And then I think it was Phil Tippett who said, “Let’s just do some computer tests of those.” And they did these tests, and stumbled on what you could do with CG and animation. And it really changed the film industry forever. We can never really go back, unfortunately. And in terms of the new Jurassic Park movies, I kind of wish they would use some animatronics, because there’s nothing quite like seeing something through the cameras that are actually there.
AVC: In the early years, filmmakers used CGI only as a way to achieve the impossible, like the T. rex running in Jurassic Park. Now when you watch something like Jurassic World, you’re seeing filmmakers that are just using CGI for everything.
GM: That’s right. And there’s a real charm and honesty and romance to animatronics. I still love that stuff. People like Rick Baker. There’s a whole roster of extraordinary artists who were at the head of their craft probably 10 years ago. But recently they’ve all had to move into digital, which isn’t a bad thing. But it does mean it’s the end of that way of thinking about filmmaking. The things that they created don’t have use anymore. There is no future Phil Tippett. It’s all digital effects supervisors. It’s looking at computer screens. So it really has been a massive transformation in the last couple of years in how digital effects are thought about in movies. And it’s all leading toward computing power. What you can do is astonishing these days. Look at Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and see where the pinnacle of CG has gone. It’s just mind blowing what you can do that you could never, ever do before. And it has really changed movies entirely, and the content of what people want to see and can make.
AVC: But does it benefit horror? You mentioned earlier that a lot of what’s scary about Jaws is the irrational, primal fear. The enemy isn’t just the shark. It’s the fact that you can’t see below the surface of this body of water. In the CGI age, you’re seeing a lot more filmmakers dropping that element of suggestion entirely.
GM: Well, The Witch came out this year, and that’s a truly horrifying film where you basically see nothing. You see two glimpses. There are different types of horror, obviously. There’s this fun action-horror like Evil Dead where you see the demons and they’re funny but scary and outrageous and it’s a different type of fear. And you think about the first Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, films that basically offer it entirely through implication. Jaws is a little bit that way. The fear is threaded in the mind of the audience, which will always be worth more than what you can show.
Stephen King has an entire storytelling concept of implying the monster. Once you fully show it, it kind of blows it. And his whole thing is basically, never open the door. I think it’s in Danse Macabre where he talks about how to create horror and how horror works in implication. Which is that, if you describe a monster that’s on the other side of the door, or a demon or ghost or whatever it is, and once you open the door, the story is over. Because once you can physically see something, the human brain can quantify it and actualize what it is. If you say, “There’s a 10-foot tall, tentacled monster on the other side of the door,” and then you see it and it’s that monster. The human brain can pretty much quickly acclimatize to that. But if you never open the door? The whole premise of The X-Files is you just get a glimpse of the door in each episode and it keeps going on forever and ever. But you never open that door because beyond that door is the ultimate thing that you really can’t describe. Which is the sense of dread that happens when you basically don’t open the door. So the rule of horror is never open the door, but, unfortunately, sometimes you have to because audiences either demand it or with some stories, you actually do need to see a little bit more. And you know, I’ve been guilty myself of opening the door when I probably shouldn’t have sometimes. [Laughs.]
AVC: There is the possibility of taking it too far in the other direction. You have to be really, really good at implication and suggestion for audiences to not revolt if you don’t eventually open the door.
GM: Every producer tells every director, “Let’s see the monster.” And obviously some stories benefit from seeing the monster. The first Alien works a lot on seeing glimpses. I think it’s a question of degrees. Alien is an example of the perfect combination of the two, where you spend a lot of the movie setting up this biology and the ideas of what this thing is and how it works. And then it has an explosive arrival, and then you’re creeping around, hunting for it. You just see glimpses of its attack, but you don’t really see it until the very end. It’s a very, very clever use of the monster. And then obviously in Aliens, they’re running around and shooting them, but it’s still shown in a very clever way. And when you do see them, they’re very good. And it also helps when you do have a few good monsters to show. But it is an ongoing love story with showing or not showing the monster, which is fun for horror fans, I think.
AVC: How do you think sequels factor in? Because in a sequel, you are fundamentally showing somebody something that they’ve already seen, and that element of mystery and dread is automatically baked out of the premise in a way.
GM: Sequels have a hard time because there’s an expectation to go bigger, better, more. And it’s a rare sequel that shows restraint. They have a tough job because you make a movie that works on the concept of implication like the first Jaws movie. What do the producers of that movie do for the sequel? They’re not going into the movie saying, “This movie made $400 million dollars. Let’s make another movie based on implication.” They’re going in and saying, “We made a movie about a big shark, let’s make a big shark in every scene, and it’s gonna be flying.” They’re not gonna approach it with a thoughtful mentality. Let’s just get the shark on screen and make it kill as many people as possible. And then what you have is Jaws 2 and Jaws 3, which completely ignore why the first film was good. It’s the way the shark is talked about. It’s the way it’s actually presented that makes it terrifying. I mean, obviously it has Spielberg’s genius and how he directs action and characters and storytelling. But the basic premise of how he made that terrifying is nonexistent in the films that followed because they’re just referring to the first film without any knowledge of why it worked. And it wasn’t showing the shark.
AVC: The first attack works so well because of the fear that actress conveys. It’s very vivid and infectious. You do something similar in Wolf Creek.
GM: Right. It’s something that other films like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre do. There’s a vocal quality that comes out of the actors to create the fear that we’ve projected. This is something that I think is extremely important. Human beings are finely tuned to hear truth in life. Basically the human mind is a bullshit detector. And so in movies, when you hear the sound of genuine distress, it actually hits something in you biologically and does things to your brain. So horror films with bad acting obviously don’t work as well. When you have films that have the sound of genuine human distress, that translates, because you are communicating to people that, even though it’s a movie and it’s obviously fake, there’s a realism to it that basically puts the human brain into a mode of reaction, an emotional state. Jaws does that all the way through with the sound of that first woman. You basically hear the pain, hear the suffering and your brain goes into, “Oh my God, this thing is terrifying.” The first Alien does that. When you hear the deaths in that film, it’s extremely distressing. A film that works entirely on this concept is the first Blair Witch, just because the sound of distress in the voices, the pitch of that sound is at a level that can’t help but disturb, unnerve, and terrify people. The Exorcist has the same thing. It’s a handy thing to be aware of in horror films.
AVC: How do you provoke that in an actor? Can you teach it?
GM: Well, first of all, I think you have to be aware of the concept. And then basically, it becomes about casting and about looking at actors who have a genuine ability. Let’s say you have a scale of one to 10. Ten is Marlon Brando and one is a terrible soap actor. Good acting is someone who can 100 percent, totally transport themselves into the reality in a given circumstance at any moment. You have someone that can do that, that can be utterly believably convincing in a moment, and you put five of those people in a movie, then what they’re being scared of and how they’re reacting to something that’s scary is going to be a million times more effective than if you have a bunch of actors who can’t genuinely do that. That’s what we call good acting, whether it’s comedy or drama or horror. People with a magical ability to convince their own biology and brain that what they’re experiencing is real. And if the actor experiences it as real, then it’s real for the audience.
Before casting, it’s writing. It’s the concept. Ideally, in horror stories, are you dealing with a primary fear that most people have? Is the script articulating that primary fear in a way that works? Are the characters saying words they would actually say? And are actors able to do it the way that is genuinely truthful? And then it’s directing. Are you able to corral those moments of truth? And all you’re trying to do on set is link those moments of truth from scene to scene so you never break the audience’s trust that what they’re witnessing is part of a believable world. And if you can do all those things, then you ideally will have a good movie.
Mike Flanagan’s career may have exploded over the past couple of years—his most recent film, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, was distributed by Universal—but he hasn’t forgotten his micro-budget roots. For our marathon, he chose to highlight They Look Like People, a thesis film from NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts that was picked up for distribution last year.
Mike Flanagan: I have a real affinity for DIY filmmaking, especially DIY genre filmmaking. This movie was made for—I heard $10,000. It’s one of those movies where you think, given the resources that they have, it’s impossible to put together a really effective horror film. And the movie terrified me. I thought it was so well executed. And then I found out the director, Perry Blackshear, also pretty much served as his own crew as well.
AVC: Yeah, when you look at the IMDB page, it says, “cinematography by Perry Blackshear, editing by Perry Blackshear, production design by Perry Blackshear, directed and written by Perry Blackshear…”
MF: Yeah, he’s a one-man army. The film itself is really chilling. And it’s beautifully acted. The cast across the board is doing really exceptional work. And it’s really able to do something that bigger budget horror films aren’t always able to do, which is create and sustain an atmosphere of real tension and uncertainty and paranoia all the way through. It would have been just as impressive if it was a $5 million movie, but the fact that it was basically a DIY project MacGyvered together with paper clips and Band-Aids is even more impressive. It’s rare that a movie can get under my skin, and by the time the climactic scene of the movie that takes place—I was holding my breath watching it. And having made my own movies with low budgets, I’ve never had a budget that low. [Laughs.] I am completely floored that it was possible to do that. I just hadn’t been impressed like that in a long time.
AVC: One of the interesting things about horror as a genre is that it’s possible to work on a micro-budget and still make an effective film.
MF: You don’t need star power. In fact, it’s often better when you have actors that you don’t recognize and don’t bring that baggage of expectations with them. It helps you accept these characters as very real people, which makes the stakes, I think, much more intense. And the evolution of digital photography has made it so the production value you can get out of a DSLR camera is really quite aesthetically beautiful. Movies can look so much better than they used to back when we had to shoot on MiniDV or something like that. Like, you couldn’t afford to make a movie.
And it also forces people to be more creative without all the bells and whistles and effects. It really puts all the pressure on the actors and the story, and generating fear with implication, and relying on the imagination of the viewer. I think the genre is uniquely suited for that.
AVC: When you’re talking about creating fear—is that something the director does? How is that accomplished?
MF: It definitely takes a very strong point of view from the director. And in this case, because he had to do everything—the enormous amount of pressure Perry Blackshear must have been under—I can’t imagine. The other thing is that it puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the cast. And in this case, it’s such a two-hander that if you had a weak link in the cast, the whole enterprise would fall apart.
So when movies are made in extreme conditions like this, they only really succeed if the director has a clear vision and a control over tone and atmosphere, because there’s nothing else to fall back on. And [Perry Blackshear] demonstrates such an incredible control over that. And then beyond that, he does the most important thing, which is making you emotionally invested in these characters within the first 10 minutes of this movie. Without that connection, everything else wouldn’t matter. And that, I think, is a testament to his cast. It’s almost more difficult to accomplish [on a low budget], what should be this very basic thing, which is caring about your characters and expressing your vision, than it would be on a huge movie. And they can’t even accomplish those things sometimes. So yeah, it’s kind of pure filmmaking. And it’s inspiring.
AVC: You said this movie really stuck with you. Are you still sensitive to horror movies, or are you kind of hardened to them at this point?
MF: [Laughs.] I’m a little weathered, and harder to scare than I used to be for sure, which makes it resonate even more when somebody gets to me. There are still movies that knock me off my couch. Like the first time I saw Martyrs, I couldn’t breathe. Lake Mungo was one that really got under my skin.
I think what affects me more than anything, as I work more and I’m just kind of more underwater within the industry, is when a horror movie is scary because it’s about something that’s bigger. In the case of this movie, this was about a real beautiful friendship where someone had to deal with a friend who they really loved going through a period of intense mental illness. And the horror was born so organically out of that, it just felt very real and felt very human. That stuff scares me more than computer generated monsters and ghosts, which are super fun and I enjoy them like everybody else. But this kind of horror hits you right in the heart.
AVC: It’s a different sort of thing.
MF: Yeah, it’s very different. The thrill ride is always going to be there. And you can throw money and state-of-the-art effects at it all day long, but I think the genre, in general, succeeds the most when you’re examining the darker side of what it means to be a human on the planet Earth and how we interact with each other. And when movies plumb those depths, they’ll always scare me. I hope other people, too.
Robert Eggers brought years of experience as a production designer to his directorial debut The Witch, building a 17th-century homestead in the middle of nowhere in order to more fully immerse viewers in the world of the film. His pick also deals with a malevolent force attacking an isolated group of people, albeit in a more futuristic milieu.
Robert Eggers: I decided I didn’t want to choose something that was barely a horror movie, and Alien is just great. I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of my top two Ridley Scott movies. It’s extremely suspenseful and entertaining and from a craft standpoint, it’s incredibly impressive. It’s not a great script, but Ridley Scott was able to totally reinvent what we understood an alien to be by using H.R. Giger. It holds up visually. There’s only three moments that don’t hold up today.
AVC: I have to ask: What are those?
RE: When the chest-burster runs across the floor, that’s a little funny. Obviously, the chest-bursting sequence is incredible. But that little zip across the floor doesn’t hold up for me. Then there’s a cut between Ian Holm’s severed head and a prosthetic head that sort of shows the artifice in a way. And I don’t like seeing the alien in the wide shot.
RE: Yeah, I was going to say. That one is arguable. [Laughs.] That’s the only time he looks like a guy in a suit to me. Everything else is utterly convincing. The Giger alien planet—it’s insane how that doesn’t seem like a set. It’s the most otherworldly thing you could possibly imagine, and it doesn’t seem like a set at all. It’s so impressive.
AVC: You have to give a lot of credit to Giger for Alien. For how well it works.
RE: Of course, it’s Giger’s design. But Ridley Scott has good taste, visually, and he saw what would work. And the performances are really good. You buy them as people immediately, which makes it scarier and more effective.
5:30 am: The Exorcist (1973)
“Unclassifiable” is the best way to describe the genre-hopping whatsits of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who followed their cabin-in-the-woods crazy quilt Resolution with Spring, a swoony walk-and-talk romance that just happened to double as a gooey creature feature. Though hard at work on their third feature, The Endless, the directing duo took a few minutes to discuss their love for William Friedkin’s beloved, Oscar-winning The Exorcist.
The A.V. Club: Tell us why you picked The Exorcist.
Justin Benson: It’s one of those movies that… What is The Exorcist, 1973? Is that correct?
Aaron Moorhead: It’s around there.
JB: It’s around there. You know, it’s one of those movies that’s over 30 years old and it could be released today and from all technical standards it would be a thoroughly modern movie. And that is heavily connected to why it is actually so scary. The thing is, it uses minimal music. And the music it does use is not your typical horror-movie music. It’s not like when something scary happens, these abrasive violins hit. Tubular Bells is playing, which is just weird creepy atmospheric music. There’s actually minimal music used. And it’s more about using sound design to get the sense of unease to the audience, and really under your skin.
AM: Justin kind of informed me of this, of some of the backstory of The Exorcist. But there’s a weird punk-rock thing that people nowadays often don’t know about The Exorcist, and it’s that it was rebranded as a thriller so it could run an Oscar campaign. So us in the horror genre, the red-headed stepchild of genres, saw that happening and basically got to see a horror film win an Oscar. And that’s pretty cool. Pretty rare.
Another reason I picked it is, to be a horror film or movie one would watch around Halloween, you don’t necessarily have to be scary. In fact, most of them aren’t. They don’t even aim for that. That’s not the target. Fun is the target. There’s a jolt sound and there’s a big piece of violence. And it’s not supposed to be like, “Oh, that kept me up at night.” It’s supposed to be, “Oh, that was fun.” You’re in the theater and you jumped a little bit and you go, “Whoa that guy’s head blew off!”
JB: That’s mostly why we like horror movies.
AM: But The Exorcist achieved something much more rare, which is to be actually scary. There’s lots of reasons for this. But my own personal reason is that the genre of possession movies that The Exorcist sort of created, they tend to lean pretty hard into a biblical mythology. If you weren’t raised with that religion, or if it’s not something that’s deep within you, then you kind of get lost when they identify the demon from the Bible. It becomes this thing where it’s like, “I don’t know, I wasn’t raised in that so I don’t find it particularly frightening.” But as someone raised agnostic leaning atheist, I see these details being left out that make it really scary.
And one of those things that’s really interesting is that in the book, they identify the demon as Pazuzu from ancient Babylon. That’s interesting in and of itself, because Babylon is pre-biblical times. So it’s interesting they chose that demon in the book, but in the movie they don’t identify the demon at all. And in fact, when the demon fails the test and shows that it’s not Satan, that actually makes it way more frightening. Because that makes it more of a mystery.
In something like The Rite, I know that I can look up a Wikipedia page on the demon that’s in the movie and be like, “Oh that’s not real.” I know I can go to the Wikipedia page of the Salem witch trials and see that witches weren’t witches. They were innocent women that were burned at the stake. Every single one of them. So the thing in The Conjuring, that’s not real. You can’t get possessed by a witch because they never existed. But in The Exorcist, I don’t know if that thing existed. Whatever is possessing that little girl, I don’t know. Might be real. I can’t go to a source and disprove it and be like, “That’s just a myth that a dude made up.”
AVC: There’s the moment in the movie, after Regan has gone through those grueling medical procedurals, where even the doctors are like, “We don’t know what this is either.”
AM: No, that scene is what kind of got me. All the doctors are so uncomfortable trying to say, “Have you considered an exorcism?” The first hour of the movie is spent with just your skeptic’s brain. And that’s really important to us. There was something that Lovecraft said about fear of the unknown being the strongest human emotion, and that’s it. It pulls us out of our comfort zone of, “I’ve seen a demon possession movie. I know which demon it is and where in the Bible it is.” But once it’s not that anymore, which The Exorcist goes to great pains to show you, you’re in completely unchartered territory. Which means that holy book that’s supposed to get rid of that demon is basically worthless and you have to find your own path. Or maybe there is no path and you’re just fighting impossible evil.
JB: I hate to point this out, but I don’t want to forget to say this. There is one major misstep in The Exorcist. There truly is. There’s just one thing in it. Aaron and I were talking the other day about No Country For Old Men, and we found one thing we didn’t like. I found one thing I didn’t like about The Exorcist. Do you guys remember that the only reasoning given for Regan’s possession—by the way, they could have left no reasoning for that possession. That would have been great, right? Instead, they point to her playing with a Ouija board.
AM: Ohhh right.
JB: That’s so lame! It’s like, how did people get possessed before Milton Bradley made up a game board?
AM: I’ll throw this at you. Now I think that William Friedkin would probably take issue with that. What I mean by that is, the thing inside of her is clearly incredibly deceptive and uses your own prejudices against you. So it’s like, “I’m the devil.” And when he throws the holy water she’s like, “Ahh!” even though it’s not holy water, it’s tap water. So clearly the thing inside of you will fuck with you. I think with the Ouija board it’s just like, any old excuse it had. I bet William Friedkin would agree.
JB: I like that. I like that. Okay.
AM: I’d be surprised if William Friedkin was like, “You should not mess with Ouija boards.” You know? [Laughs.] It may even be in whatever guidebook the Vatican uses for exorcisms, but it is like an official stance on exorcisms from the Vatican. I don’t know what form it takes. But the official stance is that Ouija boards are one of the threats of possession. And I know that, which is why that thing in the movie sticks out for me. Like, that is so silly. I mean, the other threat they officially cite is, like, generally new age beliefs.
AVC: The Exorcist does take the priests and their beliefs fairly seriously, which is probably one reason the film works on so many people. It takes religion seriously.
JB: I actually grew up religious, but not with Catholicism, not with a deep, rite-based, ritual-based religion. I wasn’t taught about demons or anything like that. But having grown up religious, you do understand that for religious people, whether or not they’re saying this demon is a Christian demon or not, it is still your worst religious fear realized. Demon possession is something that, even in Methodism, at least metaphorically happens. And so you can see this happen in a very literal way in this movie. So it is a religious fear realized. And for the nonbeliever, it’s just as terrifying because you’re in completely uncharted territory. You can’t point towards a religious book that was maybe possibly written by someone several thousands of years ago. It’s like, “No. This is the unknown.”
8 a.m.: Hellraiser II (1988)
The Mind’s Eye and Almost Human director Joe Begos is a horror fan’s horror fan, a trait that really comes through when he gets excited talking about his favorite movies. For our marathon, he chose Hellraiser II, the first title to have been picked by more than one filmmaker—Astron-6’s Steven Kostanski also chose it for the 2014 edition of this feature—and a prime example of the gruesomely inventive practical effects Begos strives for in his own movies.
Joe Begos: Hellraiser II: Hellbound is a sequel that is arguably better than the near masterpiece of the original. It’s the perfect movie to keep you awake during the latter hours of an all-night horror binge: The music and sound is loud as fuck, the imagery and effects shocking as hell, and it’s quickly paced and most importantly short. Everything you love about Hellraiser is cranked to 11 and shot directly into your veins for the perfect hallucinatory jolt of horror adrenaline, and one of my favorite horror sequels ever.
AVC: What I like about Hellraiser II is it delivers on the promise of the first one by taking you to Hell, and making it look awesome.
JB: Every aspect of the movie is beautiful.
AVC: What do you think about the later Hellraiser sequels? I dig 3 and 4, personally.
JB: Most people hate on the third, but I think it’s a lot of fun. The CD-ROM cenobite is ridiculous, and it spawned an awesome Motörhead song (and even more awesome music video). The fourth was a bummer for me when I first saw it, but it honestly gets incrementally better over time. I’ve watched it a couple of times over the past couple years.
Anna Biller has a wonderfully refined eye and strict standards for accuracy in her work, a trait that has both good points and bad. On the one hand, her films are beautiful, immersive experiences. On the other, they take a long time to make. This year, she has a new film, The Love Witch, a feminist take on witchcraft exploitation films of the ’60s and ’70s. To cap off our marathon, Biller chose another occult-themed throwback, the 1961 British-American co-production Horror Hotel (a.k.a. The City Of The Dead).
Anna Biller: Horror Hotel is a fantastically atmospheric low-budget British horror film directed in 1960 by John Llewellyn Moxey. Interestingly, the film, which came out at exactly the same time as Hitchcock’s Psycho, contains many of the same highly unusual story elements as Psycho. Both films feature an attractive young blond woman who drives through fog to reach a dubious motel where she will be killed with a knife in the middle of the film, leaving a sibling and a boyfriend to find the killer and bring him or her to justice. In both films, the heroine’s fearlessness is what leads to her death, as she drives long distances alone at night to destinations where killers lurk.
The film is a masterpiece of atmosphere, creating haunting effects with simple lighting effects, a fog machine, and a few actors with amazing bone structure, including the infamous Christopher Lee as Professor Alan Driscoll, the witch who lures his beautiful young student Nan Barlow into the trap of staying in Whitewood, a town where witches still live and commit human sacrifice on solstice holidays. Its economy of means is also its strength, and the crisp black-and-white photography combined with its tight script and symbols of stark horror—the dead birds pinned to the door, the witches chanting medieval chants in the fog, the blind grandfather, the macabre dance of the witches in the hotel lobby, Christopher Lee’s animal sacrifice—is extraordinarily effective. A must-see for Halloween, or for any other season.