31 Days of Horror: Train to Busan

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Dir. Yeon Sang-ho

This is a zombie movie on a train. And what sets it apart from just being seen as such, is the heart found in the movie. And the use of tension. So many other movies fail to make me care and when I don’t care, I stop watching. The physical and emotional stakes are clearly communicated and the audience can chart the growth of the characters. There are several beats that are straight out of movies like World War Z, which is okay because there is its own spin put onto it.

The movie also knows how to subvert genre expectations, and when it fails to do so, it makes up for it by having a heart. The central relationship of the movie is a workaholic father and his lonely daughter. And as stated, the fact that the story takes the time to establish their relationship to the viewer makes this movie work for me. The revelation of the outbreak is very similar to other movies aforementioned, but where the movie goes, literally, sets it apart because of the amount of fun and inventiveness in its execution. Train to Busan is so much more than just a zombie movie on a train – in my estimation, it is one of the better zombie movies to come out in quite a while.

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31 Days of Horror: What We Do in the Shadows

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Dir(s). Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

What We Do in the Shadows is much more fun than I anticipated, and had just enough surrealism to make some moments unnerving. There is a great sense of humor about vampires, but also a reverence to the established lore to make the situations fun and “believable” in that specific context. This does have many moments of chuckles and guffaws, but those moments don’t permeate the story or atmosphere. They serve to amplify the tension of some scenes. And there is a particularly funny but unnerving sequence involving the trapping and capturing of a victim that ultimately plays out very disturbing, considering how that choice by the vampires later affects all of them.

This is also an example of how a mockumentary can be use to great effect as the establishing medium for the narrative. It isn’t intrusive, although it is a part of the action most often, it still manages to stay objective to the actions around the film crew. And the story is very reverent to the established lore of both vampires and werewolves, yet having fun with the conventions of those narrative tropes that often follow when telling stories involving those two creatures. But more important to me, and what made the horrific moments all the more horrific was the fact that the movie has heart. It was impossible for me to not care for these characters. Even the assholes in the group. And not only does this care and empathy for the characters serve the horror, it also serves the story as a whole. Great fun.

31 Days of Horror: The Devil’s Candy

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Dir. Sean Byrne  (2015)

Heard a lot of great things about this movie, and combining the cast with some interesting and unsettling moments of existential dread make this movie a fun and successful exercise in dramatic tension and catharsis. There are some genuinely uneasy moments where a child is in peril, but it is not exploitative, though it comes close. Nothing overtly horrific but a slow burn has a great pay off and release for the narrative. Also fun and interesting to explore.

The family dynamic is also believable, which adds the touch needed to see how much is at stake for everyone involved. And there sort of is a debate going on in the film as to whether or not the perceived malevolence is truly supernatural or if it is just the humans involved. And because there is more emphasis on the humanity and the interactions of the family, the tension is not wasted on cheap scares, but effectively crafted scenes of terror and disbelief. The antagonist is clearly disturbed and was driven by something to commit atrocities unseen at that point.  And that which pushed him to commit those murders was more than likely an untreated mental illness, considering the part of Texas he grew up, and there is more than likely complicity on behalf of the religious elements in his hometown. That conflict between God and Satan always seems present and in active conflict for the soul of the damaged. This is low key and effective horror at its best.

31 Days of Horror: Savageland

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Dir(s). Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, and David Whelan

I cannot believe how well done this movie is. They used still photos as the found artifact to piece together what amounts to be a zombie attack on a border town. There was some video used for found footage, but it was used as a device that I don’t want to spoil because it was a great way to work into the trope. Not only does it have great narrative mechanics going for it, but it also has a social conscience, which is laid bare and is rare in horror. Horror and Sci Fi can be used to communicate subtleties of social ills, but this movie wore them on its sleeve and it was fantastic. I cannot believe how well executed this movie was and how truly unnerving it was.

One of the greatest assets this movie capitalizes upon is once again its believability. With the current state of political corruption, dehumanization of minorities, and the possibility of environmental issues culminating into a natural disaster this movie is at the nexus of great horror storytelling. Couple that with effective mockumentary formatting that uses not only found audio files, but also still camera frames. Those frames show just enough to give the impression of a nightmare unfolding on the fateful night in question. It would be unfair to say that Savageland is another zombie movie to throw on the pile. And that is because while it does dabble in the zombie tropes, it is far more than just a movie of the undead attacking a border community.

31 Days of Horror: Gerald’s Game

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Dir. Mike Flanagan

Gerald’s Game is just about one of the more unsettling movies that I have seen in quite a long time. Mainly because of the nature of the movie, which may also be its central premise – manipulation. Its portrayal of manipulation by those who are loved and trusted, as well as the various types of violation that can take place within those relationships and dynamics is very well drawn and portrayed. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the movie is how relatable it is. I’ve probably manipulated in similar manners, not to the same extent, but I probably still left damage. And that is what effective storytelling and horror tropes bring.

What is also very effective about the movie is its snapshot of a relationship brought to extremes where sexual violence and violation of trust is needed to achieve a modicum of intimacy between the two. This comes from the husband, and the wife is just as desperate to save the marriage that she will do anything to satisfy him. She then realizes how far she has gone throughout the marriage, through hallucinations that act as avatars for her psyche, played by herself and her deceased husband. She is allowed to externalize her rage, showing another unfortunate truth for some, which is that the rage that comes with self-realization will often turn toxic and shameful towards the self. She hates that she did not exercise her agency sooner and she taunts herself through the avatars.  There is eventual catharsis, but it comes at the cost of physical and emotional pain inflicted upon herself. It’s almost as if she won’t accept her healing until she has somehow self flagellated, which is unfortunately not surprising, considering the struggles that women have had to endure within society and the stigma attached to sexual abuse and violation.  I went to bed thinking of this movie and woke up thinking of this movie the next day.

31 Days of Horror: The Loved Ones

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Dir. Sean Byrne

The Loved Ones was recommended to me by a coworker, which was odd at the time because they did not strike me as a horror movie person. And I remembered reading about how good it was years ago, and how shocking it was. But shocking in a good way. And being Australian, I’m always curious about their horror cinema offerings. I will say that this movie was impressive because it had a DIY aesthetic but was guided with a deft hand for the material and the genre. Some truly gory and shocking moments, but they really did serve the story and were not gratuitous. A very fun and dark ride, and much better than it should have been.

There is a nice twist on the torture trope where instead of a man trapping a woman, this is a woman trapping a man. But it does fall into the “crazy chick” trope, yet works around it by offering that she isn’t crazy because of rejection from boys, but that she might just have been born bad. Or possibly had pushover parents who allowed her to go too far without any corrective disciplinary measures. I could definitely see that pushover parent aspect, considering how she treats her parents in the movie. The movie is gory, but it’s not gratuitous. And there are plot moments that are disguised as jump scares but actually function as both character defining moments and payoff moments for the audience. This movie should not have worked, but it worked for me.

31 Days of Horror: Lake Mungo

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Dir.  Joel Anderson

Lake Mungo was highly touted on Reddit and other places online, so again, as with many movies, I had a fear of being disappointed by the presentation. Yet again I was not let down. This movie moved swiftly, probably because it made very good use of the mockumentary format, which then utilized found footage to great effect. There were some great unsettling moments, such that when a major twist occurred I was floored. But what made the movie even more effective is the heart at the core of the film. The family depicted were clearly grieving so all that happened was heightened and was ultimately satisfying in its execution.

What works most for me, and what I feel creates the effectiveness of the entire framework is the chemistry of the family dynamic. The family is clearly broken by a family tragedy, but it also posits that they were already broken before the aforementioned tragedy that tears at its remaining fibers. The amount of trust given to the investigative crew that covers this family is astounding, but not unbelievable. Which also sets the greatest asset working in its favor, the believability. With this type of genre, or rather genre mashup of mockumentary using found footage within its narrative, lives or dies on believability. And this movie has it ten fold.