I’ve been kind of bummed lately, what with the state of the world. Our headlong rush into fascism, irrevocable climate change, and, worst of all, the encroaching start of the school year have made me even more pensive and angsty than usual. Fortunately Lego is offering something starting in August that will blow all of that garbage right out of my dumb head and replace it with a fresh set of plastic ghouls and bizarrely sharp bricks with which to, I guess, build them. Things.
I speak, of course, of Hidden Side, the new Lego theme that involves ghosts. It apparently also involves other stuff, like some kids who hunt for said ghosts. But I have no time for that, ghosts being the only part that matters FOREVER
Hidden Side also involves some AR component where you’ll use your phone to interact with the sets somehow–mostly by shooting multi-colored fireballs at them, if the trailer is any indication. I don’t hold out much hope for this particular gimmick: if the past half-decade or so have taught us anything about AR, it’s that it seldom holds anybody’s interest for very long. (To wit, half the touted functionality of the Nintendo 3DS.) And the whole thing seems to be a somewhat blatant attempt to cash in on Stranger Things mania. But honestly, I’m okay with that, because Lego ghosts are pretty much my reason for breathing.
It’s no secret that I love all things Ring. Even when I’ve hated the movies, I’ve continued to love the conceit of them. The first films (both the Japanese original and the remake) remain among my favorite scary movies ever. And as I’m sure I’ve said before, the Japanese prequel, Ringu 0: Basudeiwas pretty good too.
The originals had that bizarre eeriness, that slow burn, that weird high-pitched sound effect in the background, and that totally delicious atmosphere of dread that only the best genre films seem able to evoke. They were scary without being garish–with perhaps one or two exceptions in Verbinski’s American version.
Rings, the 2017 nobody-asked-for-it sequel, unfortunately bucks the trend by being a complete piece of irredeemable shit. It’s guilty of the worst sins of popular film making. It’s lazy, it’s transparently derivative, it’s written like an episode of the worst teenage drama dreck, and worst of all, it cynically attempts to cash in on the love of franchise fans.
The plot is garbage: Julia and Holt just graduated from high school. Holt goes off to college while Julia stays at home, apparently to help her parents with some pressing family issue that’s never identified. (Or if it was identified, I just didn’t care enough to catch it.) Julia and Holt talk online every night, until suddenly Holt goes MIA. Then Julia has a weird interaction with another young woman through Holt’s Skype account, which prompts her to drive to Holt’s school to track him down. She learns that Holt has been sucked into a nebulous research project involving the cursed video tape, led by college professor Gabriel, who apparently took his PhD in Screwing Around with Outdated Media and Also Ghost Hunting. The project involves tricking lots of students into watching the video, but providing them with “tails,” people to whom they can show copies of it. (As you’ll recall, this is the way to avoid being killed by the vengeful ghost, Samara.) Apparently this will somehow help Gabriel eventually prove the existence of the soul, because Hollywood.
Julia of course watches the video, because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, and then naturally decides that She Is Going to Get to the Bottom of This. Cue the usual sequence of “research,” i.e., frantically running from one obscure-and-isolated-but-conveniently-accessible place to another, collecting spooky scribbles that inevitably constitute the clues to the supernatural mysteries, and witnessing hallucinatory visions of supernatural significance because the ghost wants to help pad out the film’s run time. It’s the formula boiled down to its purest and stupidest expression.
Why stupid, you ask? Well, pull up a chair.
Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz is terrible as main character Julia, utterly one-note and emotionless, acting almost exclusively by proclamation: “That’s where we need to go.” “She’s in there.” *pause to open a sealed crypt* “Someone moved her.” Gag. Alex Roe, who plays boyfriend Holt, is at least sufficiently similar to actual college students to get a pass, but that isn’t really praise. The one known actor here, Johnny Galecki, plays a college professor who apparently speaks entirely in Smarm, even outside the classroom. Secondary characters are universally awful.
As always, though, it’s hard to say how much of the blame lies with the actors, and how much with the writers, who have turned in a script so full of teeth-grindingly stupid dialogue and horror cliches that no actor could possibly spin it into a decent film. And the truly aggravating thing is that it’s not stupid. I mean, it’s grammatically correct, and more or less complete as a narrative. It’s just cheesy and melodramatic and awful by virtue of completely failing itself, its franchise, and its genre. As is so often true, this could have been something good. And as is also often true, it doesn’t seem like it really even tried.
The film also attempts to bring a kind of closure to Samara’s story, explaining her origins and the real reason behind her haunting. This is stupid and cheap and insulting–not the idea of finishing a story per se, but the way in which it’s executed. And of course it doesn’t bring any real closure, because they can’t foreclose the possibility of more sequels.
Its only redeeming trait is that it has the sound effects and music from Verbinski’s original. But then again, these are just lifted straight from that far superior film as a kind of shorthand to remind you that, hey, this is The Ring! Only it’s really not. It’s the awful 2018 Slender Man movie with a swapped-out supernatural baddie. I guess if you watched this with the sound off it might be good as a generic Halloween background. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Pet Sematary is back again, because maybe remakes remind us of a time when the world wasn’t literally burning and we weren’t ruled by a syphilitic madman. I guess I could make the obvious resurrection joke, but I’m better than that. Unlike this film, alas. (Ohhh, snap.)
I don’t get why we needed this, but I was still looking forward to seeing it because I love the conceit of Pet Sematary. But what directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have done here is something wholly unlike their wonderful Starry Eyes. That film played smartly with genre conventions, riffed on David Lynch, and gave us something wholly absorbing and unexpected. Pet Sematary, on the other hand, feels like the product of an out-of-touch board meeting, stale and unnecessary and not at all what people want. If you saw the 2015 Poltergeist remake, this feels very similar. There are no drones, but there is a similar failure to justify releasing a remake in the first place. And, like Poltergeist, this remake features a few gimmicky shout-outs to the original. The effect is something like opening a fast food mustard packet to find it full of ketchup, and vice versa. Unexpected, yes. Pointless, entirely.
For example–as you’ll already know from the trailer–it isn’t baby Gage who dies this time, but big sister Ellie. There’s no clear reason for this change, and it seems (perhaps unfairly to Ellie) less horrific, simply because Gage is a baby and there’s nothing more horrible than a baby dying. The scene where Gage is running toward the road ends with Lewis snatching him at the last minute, only for Ellie to take a truck to the face instead. (Mustard when you expected ketchup.) The change also means that we’re subjected to some very generic and unconvincing “evil” acting by the resurrected Ellie, all monotone and gravely and eeeeeeevil because she’s, you know, eeeeeeeevil now. (Bland, generic, yellow mustard.)
John Lithgow is John Lithgow with a beard. I like John Lithgow, so, there’s that.
Jason Clarke as Louis channels Dale Midkiff, who first played the role, in weird ways. Specifically, the two share a strangely flat gaze that seems to persist regardless of what the rest of their faces are doing. There are some moments where Clarke’s Australian accent pokes through, begging the question: in 20-freaking-19, why not just make the character Australian? Australians can marry American people and move to Maine. You want us to accept undead cats, for chrissake. I think we can accept Ozzie ex-pats.
In the end, Pet Sematary lands among the most “meh” of films.It isn’t terrible, but it’s far from good. Watch it when it’s streaming, but don’t pay the dozen+ dollars it takes to see it in a theater. If we want movies like this to stop, we have to stop paying for them.
So hey! Interested in being part of an academic study on the role of folklore in horror? (You know you are!) I’m working on a new project about this, and I’d love to hear from you! To keep all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, if you’re interested in participating, head on over to the Horror DNA page linked below. I’m hoping we can get an ongoing conversation going about folklore’s role in horror, folk horror, and whatever other cool stuff we can think of.
I’ve been thinking about genre lately. In different fields and different media, genre means different things. There are literary genres, cinematic genres (and of course a lot of overlap between these), folkloric genres… And whatever else it means, “genre” means, ultimately, expectations. Rightly or wrongly, if something is labeled, sorted, slotted into a certain genre, that can tell you certain things about that thing. Things aren’t just things: they are certain kinds of things. Things!
As both a folklorist and a horror fan, genre has certain valences for me that it may not for others. I’ve written about folkloric genres before. In film and literature and other media, I think of the horror genre as pointing to a pleasant type of dread. (It’s only pleasant, I suppose, if you share my particular interests.) It probably wouldn’t be pleasant, of course, if the kind of thing I associate with it actually happened to me. But it’s somehow pleasant to imagine it.
By way of illustration, imagine a scene: you’re home alone. It can be day or night, sunny or stormy. All that matters is that you’re in a familiar space, and that there are shadows. In my palatial one-bedroom apartment, for instance, there’s a doorway of sorts (with no door) that separates the living room from the bedroom and bathroom. Even with lights on elsewhere in the apartment, and even in the daytime, the little patch of floor on the other side of this door-shaped hole, which houses my vertical washer/dryer and abuts the doors to the bathroom and bedroom, is in shadow. (Unless I turn on the ceiling light. Which I usually don’t.)
So there’s a “natural” dark spot, so to speak. And of course, the bedroom and bathroom are dark when I’m not in them. If I happen to leave either door open, the darkness of the little laundry space and the rooms beyond are of a piece. It’s not an inky darkness. Just a slow fading of the light, as it were. My living room is lit only by a couple of floor lamps and a purple molded Frankenstein’s monster that a friend made. The light from these lamps makes it possible to see into the darkened bathroom or, to a lesser extent, the bedroom, if I leave the door open, but those spaces are still pretty dark.
Why in the world does any of this matter?
Well okay. Imagine that you’re looking into one of those darkened doorways. Into the bedroom, say. (In your own house, not mine, you weirdo.) It’s just dark. Not pitch black, just normally dark.
But then imagine that it somehow gets darker. Light is suddenly avoiding the room. The darkness somehow grows, which doesn’t even make much sense, because darkness is not a thing, but an absence of a thing. But it happens anyway. So now you’re sitting in your well-lit living room, or wherever, staring into a now utterly black space And then, over on the left, the darkness slowly extends past the doorjamb. That’s all. The dark somehow moves out of the room that contains it, extending past the doorframe just a bit, just in that one spot. But it’s still moving, creeping along, with fuzzy edges that eat the light.
So it moves along. The light from your lamps should expel it. And of course, darkness can’t move like this; again, it’s just the absence of light. But it moves anyway. It spills out into the room where you are, very, very slowly. And dimly, somehow, in the darkness you make out a greater darkness, a shape, a deeper dark, and it makes you out, it sees you, and it reaches toward you, and the darkness moves again.
This feeling, this bizarre feeling of wrongness, of supernatural dread, of malicious intent from something that should not be capable of intent, is what I really want when I engage with the horror genre. It may be frightening; it may even make you jump. But it isn’t about “jump scares.” It’s not about nuns in heavy makeup with shark teeth, or gimmicks like not being able to talk or having to wear a blindfold. It’s certainly not about extreme violence and gore.
Consider this still from The Woman in Blackagain. It’s a quiet scene, as horror goes, and it’s pretty mundane. Aside from the ruins, it’s not even an especially memorable landscape. A bit dreary, maybe, but hardly remarkable. But there’s this woman, and she’s all wrong. She’s all in black, her clothing is from a different time, and her body language wrong, and her face…
But I’m very likely the odd man out here. It could be that you don’t find that weird woman in her antiquated funeral garb frightening at all. More generally, I know others think of giallo, or slashers, or torture porn, or exploitation, or any number of other things when they hear the word “horror.” Genre is always problematic. There’s no accounting for taste, and I know my own is shaped not only by my cultural context but also my acadmic interests and my own weird personal history.
But that’s what I want in horror: creeping dread. The unsettling feeling of malice from a source that shouldn’t be malicious. The supernatural, and specifically, the malevolent supernatural. I’ve often heard people say that ghosts and monsters aren’t scary, because humans are scary enough. And there’s some truth in this. People certainly are scary. But fear of other people isn’t particularly fun.
But enough about me. What does horror mean to you? Do you think of the reaching dark? Or of something else? Does it make sense to include supernatural thrillers in the same genre as slashers? And seriously, have you watched Sweet Homeyet?
I know you’re all probably sick of my Castlevania fanlove, but I can’t get enough. I genuinely feel that the vampire-centric games have some of the best, most evocative, genre-perfect soundtracks in the business. Don’t get me wrong: I’m crazy about Uematsu Nobuo and the epic, symphonic scores often associated with RPGs. But Castlevania always manages to combine a hint of creepiness with a good dose of ’80s-inspired action.
Add to that the Goth, vaguely Visual Kei sensibilities of this trio, and you can’t go wrong.