Modern Horror Classics: The Descent

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Greetings, readers! It’s week two of my look at modern horror classics. This time I’ve chosen one of the best horror films to come out in the last 20 years. It’s one of those scary movies that sneaks up on you and builds to one heck of a finale. It’s The Descent. The film has such a simple premise on the surface. But the tension builds up like a tight rope that’s about to snap. And when it does, you’re left with a lot more to think about than you imagined at the beginning.

The Descent follows a group of six women who embark on a spelunking expedition. They’re doing it on the one year anniversary of Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) car accident that killed Sarah’s husband Paul and daughter Jessica. The group of friends: Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) meet at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Right when they all meet, we sense tension among the group, especially between Sarah and Juno. Juno apologizes to Sarah for not being there for her after the accident. But Sarah is distant, clearly not over the trauma.

The day after their reunion at the cabin, the group goes to a cave entrance and descends. But things start to go wrong almost immediately, After moving through a narrow passage, it collapses behind them, leaving them trapped. Soon after, Juno reveals that they are in an uncharted cave system, so any hopes of a rescue are slim. Juno hoped that exploring a new cave would help mend her relationship with Sarah. From that point on the film becomes about the group’s struggle for survival. They find climbing equipment from a previous spelunker as well as a cave drawing, suggesting an exit does exist. While the group looks for the exit, they discover (SPOILER ALERT!) that they are not alone in the cave, The cave us home to some pale, humanoid crawlers. It’s a race against the clock to find the exit before the creatures can pick them off.

Most of what I’ve described sounds like bits and pieces of things you’ve seen in other horror movies. But The Descent sets itself apart by the way it develops the relationships of its characters and revealing their personalities gradually as the tension of the situation grows. Like another horror classic, Halloween, the women in The Descent are spunky and interesting heroines. They’re not just there to be predictable horror movie characters. What’s also worth noting about this movie is that while it does have monsters, it almost doesn’t need them. There’s enough compelling drama in the group dynamic and the struggle to resolve the situation that would make for an effective thriller all by itself. But when the creatures show up, boy are they terrifying! They will haunt your dreams for a couple of nights.

The Descent relies on human interaction for most of its drama without the material ever devolving into overdone melodrama. This is a horror movie that builds in a way that few horror movies do anymore. And while this is a great movie, I feel one disclaimer is needed. If you are claustrophobic…DO NOT WATCH The Descent! Some of the most terrifying moments come from the protagonists navigating tiny spaces in the caves and making narrow escapes. I’m not afraid of tight spaces. But this movie made me feel like I could be. Director Neil Marshall, cinematographer Sam McCurdy (the photography in the cave scenes is downright chilling) and his talented cast deserve the utmost praise for crafting one of the most truly spellbinding thrillers in recent years. Years from now, The Descent will take its place in the pantheon of horror classics.

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Modern Horror Classics: The Cabin In The Woods

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year again. No. It’s not Christmas. It’s Halloween season. The month of October is my favorite because it means watching horror movies old and new. This month I’m going to be covering modern horror films that to me are destined to become classics. The first one I have selected came out only six years ago. But it’s one of the smartest and scariest films I have seen in a long time: The Cabin In The Woods. Like Scream and Shaun of the Dead, it manages to be a clever satire about horror movies while also being a very effective horror movie.

The film follows a classic horror film setup. Five college students decide to take a break and head to an isolated and creepy. That premise should sound familiar to anyone who saw Evil Dead and its countless imitators. But this isn’t just another mindless slasher movie.

The five college students: Dana (Kristen Connolly). Holden (Jesse Williams), Marty (Fran Kranz), Jules (Anna Hutchison), and Curt (Chris Hemsworth), all get thrown into the craziness right away at the cabin. They’re dosed with mind-altering drugs that prevent them from having rational thoughts. With a lack of inhibitions in place, the gang goes exploring the cabin. They discover several bizarre objects. One is the diary of Patience Buckner, a cabin resident abused by her family. Dana recites the incantations in the diary and unleashes a zombified version of the Buckner family. Then pheromones are released to induce Curt and Jules to sleep together. As anyone who has seen a teen horror movie knows: teens_sex=death. Jules gets killed. But Curt survives to warn the others.

Curt, Holden, and Dana attempt to escape in their RV. But one of the Buckners has been hiding in the RV and manages to off Curt and Holden. Dana survives after the RV crashes into the lack amidst the chaos. And we find out that Marty has survived as well. His use of marijuana made him immune to the mind-altering drugs.

The twist in The Cabin In The Woods (spoiler alert!) is that the kids are part of a ritual. Everything that happens to them is planned. There is an underground facility that has manipulated them to make the bad decisions that kids so often make in horror movies. Now, what is behind the facility’s scheme I’ll leave for you to discover. But I don’t want to mention that the facility staff features some wonderful supporting performances from Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. And there’s a small part at the end of the movie played by, well, it’s a great surprise. It’s an actress who is perfect for the role given her previous work in the genre.

The Cabin In The Woods has a lot of fun with the movies it’s deconstructing. The screenplay was co-written by director Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. It’s endlessly clever, and listening to the dialogue is one of the film’s pleasures. Yes, it has plenty of blood and guts. So on that level it succeeds as a horror movie. But it’s about so much more than the body count. It’s a very smart horror film, something we don’t see too often in the era of endless sequels and remakes. You don’t have to have seen an inordinate amount of horror movies to completely appreciate The Cabin In The Woods. But devotees of the genre will get more of the jokes and appreciate some of the tropes more.

I also want to mention that the main cast is a lot of fun to watch, especially Fran Kranz as Marty. Far too often in movies like this the characters are just there to do predictable, dumb things. In those cases I start making a mental list of who I think will get killed off next. But here, the characters are not just cookie cutter stereotypical horror genre people. They’re very believable college kids with spunky, interesting personalities. That’s what you get in great horror movies like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street. The Cabin In The Woods is scary, funny, and, above all, smart. It’s one of the most please surprises of the last ten years.

Classic Movie Houses: Meet Me in St. Louis

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It’s the last week of my look back through some of my favorite houses from classic movies. This last selection is a house that is part of a movie that has become a staple of my Christmas viewing over the last few years. Yes, it’s Meet Me In St. Louis. While I’m nowhere near thinking about Christmas yet this year (I’m more of a Halloween person myself), I always think of this house when I think of favorite houses from movies I’ve seen. What can I say? I’m a sucker for Victorian homes. And the one in Meet Me In St. Louis remains one of the most charming ones ever committed to film.

Meet Me In St, Louis takes place during the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The occupants of the Victorian house are the Smith family. There are daughters Esther (Judy Garland), Tootie (Margaret O’ Brien), Rose (Lucille Bremer), and Agnes (Joan Carroll). In addition there is maid Katie (the wonderful character actress Marjorie Main). The story follows the sisters learning life lessons and coping with an impending move to New York when their father (Leon Ames) gets offered a job there. Oh, and I can’t go this far into discussing Meet Me In St. Louis without mentioning that the mother is played by the underrated Mary Astor. The film was one of the crowning jewels of the MGM musicals of the golden age. It was shot in glorious Technicolor and features great songs, including The Trolley Song, which went on to be a staple of Judy Garland’s singing repertoire.

But back to that Victorian house. It has a stately look to it. But at the same time it feels like a classic Midwestern feel to it. About the only thing missing is a white picket fence. One of my favorite features of the house is the staircase near the entryway. It gives the one in Gone With The Wind a run for its money in the elegance department. The staircase is a focal point for much of the action. And I never tire of the shots of it.

I also love the simplicity of the dining room with its oval table, red and white wallpaper, and the one simple yet charming chandelier. The mahogany fireplace really completes the whole look. This is a very stylish house that never feels showy. Not too many of us can imagine living in, say the sprawling estate in Rebecca. But the house in Meet Me In St. Louis feels so cozy and charming. It’s a house that viewers can aspire to living in. For me, a life goal is finding a house like it to move into.

The last part of the house I want to mention is the bathroom. I love the claw foot tub. And that stained glass window is one of the most gorgeous touches in the whole house. It’s not a huge bathroom. But it has everything you need and it looks fabulous. It’s the perfect relaxation space. And who doesn’t need one of those?

There are houses bigger, fancier, and that draw attention to themselves more in movies. But few have the simple and charming elegance as the Smith’s Victorian house in Meet Me In St. Louis. Every time I watch the movie, I find myself coveting Judy Garland’s outfits and the place the Smith’s call home. Anyone that has seen the movie will understand why.

Classic Movie Houses: Monster House

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Greetings, readers! I hope you all are enjoying my look back at some of my favorite houses from movies. This week I’m taking you way back to 2006. Okay, so this film isn’t technically a classic since it’s fairly recent. But I’m years from now it will achieve classic status. The movie is Monster Houses. While the reviews of it were somewhat mixed, I found it to be one of the most fun and original animated films in a long time. It’s a rare animated film that both kids and adults can enjoy.

Most of the time in haunted house movies, the terror comes from some scary person/thing living in the house. In the case of Monster House, the house itself is the monster. Rather than its architecture making it feel like another character in the movie, the house in Monster House is literally a main character. The house lives and breathes. It’s a stroke of genius if you ask me.

In the film, teenager DJ (Mitchel Musso) has gotten into a habit of spying on his neighbor Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who lives across the street. Nebbercracker’s house is notorious for destroying the tricycles of kids who trespass on his lawn. One night, DJ’s parents head out-of-town on the eve of Halloween. DJ is then watched by nanny Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stays with him. DJ decides to call his friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) over to play basketball. Their basketball ends up in Nebbercracker’s lawn. When they try to retrieve the ball, Nebbercracker suffers what appears to be a heart attack, and is hauled away in an ambulance.

But that night DJ receives phone calls from the supposedly empty house. DJ learns from eavesdropping on Zee and her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) that Bones lost a kite on Nebbercracker’s lawn as a kid. Bones sees the kite in the doorway of the house, but is consumed trying to get it back. The next morning, DJ and Chowder save Jenny (Spencer Locke) when she goes over to the house to sell Halloween candy. Jenny tells the police, but is not believed. Jenny, DJ, and Chowder then enlist the help of “Skull” Skulinski (Jon Heder), an alleged expert on all things supernatural. The trio learn from Skull that the house was created when a human soul merged with a man-made structure. The house can only be killed by destroying its heart. The kids reason that the house’s heart is the furnace. Now, what they do with that information and what human soul merged with the house I will not reveal, as that is one of the great plot twists. But let’s just say this animated film packs a bigger emotional punch than you might expect.

Back to the house and why I chose to feature it in my favorite movie houses spotlight. Remember how in The Amityville Horror the house had windows that looked like eyes and on a stormy night when lightning would strike near them they looked demonic? The house in Monster House makes the house with demonic eyes a literal reality. But the house not only comes alive with glowing eyes, it has pointy teeth, and it literally comes to life, breaking free from its foundation and chasing the film’s protagonists.

One of the main reasons I chose to include the house from Monster House in this series is that the animation is some of the most imaginative in recent memory. The animation work was done by Dreamworks, the studio that also gave us Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon. The film was made in 3D motion capture. Motion capture is the technique where actors’ physical performances are recorded, and then those movements are skinned over with their animated forms. Monster House was the first film to be made using Sony’s animation rendering software. The animators really went to town and made the concept of the creepy house across the street come to life in a fabulous way. As a fun bit of trivia, the film was produced by Steven Spielberg. You may recall that Spielberg produced another great haunted house movie: Poltergeist.

Credit the success of Monster House to the animators, as well as director Gil Kenan and writers Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler. It’s worthy of not that the story of Monster House is completely original and the writers do a great job of creating a back story for the house. It may not have done gangbusters at the box office. But Monster House is worth checking out for its clever story and the wonderful animation of the haunted house.

 

Classic Movie Houses: Rebecca

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It’s time for another installment in my series on favorite houses in classic movies. I kicked this series off a few weeks ago with the haunted estate in The Haunting. If any movie house gives that one a run for its money, it’s Manderley in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. The house in this movie honestly should have gotten top billing in the credits along with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Rebecca managed to pull off a rare cinematic feat. It did justice to its source material. Having seen the movie multiple times and now having finally read Daphne du Maurier’s novel, I can safely say the movie delivers the Manderley of the novel.

Rebecca is the story of a naive woman (Joan Fontaine) who happens to run into aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while they are in Monte Carlo. They fall in love and are married in two weeks time. Hollywood romances move fast! After the wedding, they go to Manderley, Maxim’s huge country house in Cornwall. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (played to chilling perfection by Judith Anderson), doesn’t take kindly to the new Mrs. de Winter. Danvers still worships the ground the first Mrs. de Winter (the Rebecca of the title) walks on. She even preserves Rebecca’s bedroom as a shrine. Mrs. Danvers is terrifying because she’s not a cartoonish, foaming at the mouth villain. No. She’s just going to make your life as uncomfortable as possible by making you feel completely inadequate and like you don’t belong.

So that’s the general storyline. Now, back to the house. And what a house it is! It’s a favorite classic movie house of mine not just because of the scale of it. It looks gorgeous from the outside, but, as the story progresses, it feels like a haunted mausoleum. The seemingly endless corridors, the family heirlooms that fill the estate, the fact that the location of the house feels so isolated… All of this contributes to the very effective haunted vibe of the movie. There’s also the fact that Rebecca’s presence haunts the house. The letters R and W are all over the place (including the stationary and handkerchiefs). And Mrs. Danvers is constantly waxing nostalgic about the good old days when Manderley was run by Rebecca, who radiated grace and elegance. All of this systematically starts to drive Joan Fontaine out of her mind and question her relationship with Maxim.

Manderley gives you the feeling that it’s a house filled with secrets. There are hints of Rebecca and what happened to her around seemingly every corner. Did you happen to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Remember the scene with the living chess set where the human characters were so tiny compared to the living/breathing chess pieces on that massive chess board? Joan Fontaine exploring Manderley feel like Harry Potter and his crew on that chess board. Both feel so insignificant in their surroundings. Cinematographer George Barnes and art directors Lyle R. Wheeler and William Cameron Menzies are to be applauded for making Manderley one of the most beautiful and haunting homes ever put on film. The house is a marvel from the inside out.

Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s a testament to Hitchcock’s masterful directing, as well as the people behind the scenes who brought the Manderley of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance to life. It remains one of the most incredible houses ever seen in a classic movie.

 

Classic Movie Houses: Mon Oncle

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It’s week two of my series on favorite houses in classic movies. Last week I covered the Gothic mansion in The Haunting. This week  I change gears completely. My pick this week is Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. The quirkiness of this late 50s house is charming and makes an already charming comedy that much more enjoyable.

Mon Oncle follows the adventures of Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) as he lives with his family in a very industrialized suburb of Paris. There is a great contrast between the crumbling stone buildings in the city’s old neighborhoods and the very modern Villa Arpel. The house that Mr. Hulot’s family lives in is not only odd just from its rectangular shape with two windows that look like the lenses of eye glasses. But it also has decorating touches that are delightfully wacky. My favorite is the fish-shaped fountain in the center of the garden. It’s the focal point of some great gags in the film.

A great deal of the humor in the film comes from the fact that the design choices of the house are done more for style than functionality. The furniture is hard to sit in. There are stepping-stones put somewhere that makes no sense. And then the appliances are absurdly loud. The house is all about aesthetics. It’s design is superficial and so are its occupants.

The other thing I love about the house in Mon Oncle is the geometrically shaped garden. It is definitely not something you would see on any HGTV gardening show. Quite the contrary. It looks like something right out of the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands.

Mon Oncle is also a brilliant satire about materialism and industrialization. Mr. Hulot’s family are more interested in showing off their possessions and fancy gadgets than they are in the functionality of their house. They would rather live in a fancy house than be accessible, regular people with a roof over their head.

Jacques Tati’s films are a joy to behold. Mon Oncle is a good place to start if you’re new to his style. The house in it is really something else. The color scheme is very late 1950s and its geometric design makes it look futuristic. That’s appropriate considering that the film is a sharp satire of industrialization. The architecture is far from the only reason to see the movie. But it’s one of my favorite parts. Villa Arpel would be fun to walk through once or twice for the sheer imagination and oddity of it. But I’m not sure I could live there.

 

Classic Movie Houses: The Haunting

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Have you ever seen a movie and been jealous of a house featured in it? I have on a number of occasions. So this month I will be sharing some of my favorite movie houses. The first one is of the haunted variety. When it comes to haunted houses, the ultimate is Hill House from Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting.

The story, based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, follows a group of people brought to a house to record any instances of paranormal activity. While we never see any ghosts or monsters, the sounds of creaking doors and pounding coming from the ceiling make for some of the most suspenseful moments in all of cinema. It’s moody/creepy atmosphere has yet to be equaled in modern film. A remake in 1999 had all the special effects on the planet, but it paled by comparison. Originals vs. remakes is a topic of discussion for another day.

Back to the house itself. The house in The Haunting is one of the great haunted mansions ever put on film. It’s massive with a great Gothic look. It’s so huge you imagine a ton of supernatural things could be lurking inside it. There are also some statues around the house that add to the haunted feeling.

The scariest scene in the movie for my money is when the entire group is huddled in the living room. They hear echoing and pounding coming from the ceiling. The fact that all the terror is coming from the very stylish ceiling makes it all the more unsettling. To top it off, the doors start to bend in. There’s nothing like the sound of an old house makes.

The house in The Haunting also has one of the most terrifying staircases I have ever seen.

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There are spiral staircases and then there is THIS spiral staircase. It looks like it was conceived by an architect with a twisted sense of humor. One wrong step and you could fall to your death. How did the staircase in this house get building code approval? You get the feeling while walking on it that it could snap at any moment. It’s a real architectural marvel.

The Haunting establishes mood with its sets and cinematography. It builds terror from the house being a character in the movie. The long and dark corridors, spiral staircase from hell, creepy statues outside, creaking ceilings/doors, etc. all contribute wonders to the tension. Credit production designer Elliot Scott, set decorator John Jarvis, and cinematographer Davis Boulton for making it one of the best looking haunted houses ever made. While Poltergeist is my favorite haunted house movie, The Haunting wins my title of coolest haunted house in a movie. I’ll end this week’s blog entry with a quote from the movie about the house itself.

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.–The Haunting, 1963