What’s Scarier in a Horror Movie: Realism or Supernaturalism? Also, The Goddess Picks Her Top 20 Scariest Supernatural Films

Beware of house prices that go bump in the night.

I have loved the horror genre for as long as I can remember, and I have been a skeptic of the supernatural for almost as long. But therein lies an interesting contradiction, for as regular readers of this blog will no doubt have gathered, I am most often frightened by horror films featuring supernatural elements, particularly ghosts, demons/the Devil, and witches, even though I emphatically do not believe that any of those things exist.

Why should this be? Logically, you would assume that people in general would be most terrified by a film that portrays something that could actually happen, or that they at least believe could actually happen. By this criteria, for example, movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hostel, Wolf Creek, or The Last House on the Left, by virtue of being realistic, should be far scarier than anything that features a white-clad wraith drifting through the halls of a decaying Victorian mansion.

This is not so in my case, and I’m curious as to whether it’s true with other fans of horror. Please do not take this to mean that I’m not a fan of more realistic horrors, because I definitely am. I do not, however, find these movies particularly frightening, and I’ve always wondered why. Why should I be so disturbed by situations and images in film that I’m certain will never happen to me in real life? Is it because I have a greater handle on reality than I do on my own subconscious? Is it simply because I’m more terrified by the unknown than the known-but-horrible? I’d really like some insight into this conundrum, so here’s a poll that you may participate in if you’re so inclined:

Also, if you’d care to expound upon any theories as to why you feel the way you do about the horror movies that scare you the most, then please share them in the comments, because I really am curious and would like to get a discussion going.

And now, because I want to, I present a collage of my Top 20 Scariest Supernatural Movies, in no particular order. How many can you identify? Again, answer in the comments! Until next time, Goddess out.

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The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Evil E.T.’s Eggcellent Adventure

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the sci-fi genre or of horror/sci-fi crossovers. There are some exceptions, of course—the Alien franchise, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—but on the whole, aliens are not really compelling baddies for me. So it was with some degree of meh-ness, on Halloween night, that I agreed to give a lesser-known British sci-fi horror flick from the 80s a whirl; the film was the God of Hellfire’s pick for the evening (our other two Halloween screenings included more traditional horrors, The Omen and The House That Dripped Blood, in case you wondered). Despite my initial trepidation, though, I have to say that I am now rather glad that the GoH exposed me to this hidden gem, because I would have likely never sought it out on my own, and it is deeply, intensely fucked up, but in the best possible way.

Released in 1983, the bewilderingly-titled Xtro was directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, and was presumably made to cash in on the wave of popular sci-fi films of the period, like E.T., Alien, and Videodrome. It was pretty resoundingly panned on its first release, but became something of a cult film in the ensuing years, spawning two sequels so far (though the sequels don’t have much of anything to do with the original movie). It’s not difficult to see why the film slowly found an audience, because there is some very, very strange shit going on in this thing, and though it’s a fairly low-budget affair, the special effects are actually quite good for the time, and some of the imagery is pretty disturbing.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BUT IS THERE ANY WAY I COULD MAYBE GET A RIDE TO THE CHIROPRACTOR?

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BUT IS THERE ANY WAY I COULD MAYBE GET A RIDE TO THE CHIROPRACTOR?

Xtro tells the story of a boy named Tony (Simon Nash) who is playing with his dad Sam (Philip Sayer) in the yard of their farmhouse when suddenly an intense light blazes out of the sky and apparently drags Sam away with it. Cut to three years later. No one really knows what happened to Sam, but Tony and his mom Rachel (Bernice Stegers) have had to move on with their lives, and now live in London with Rachel’s new boyfriend Joe (Danny Brainin) and a hot French nanny named Analise (Mariam d’Abo), who was presumably shoehorned into the film to provide the requisite titty shots.

Meanwhile, a light shines out in the woods again. Two people driving down a dark country road hit a freaky-looking creature with their car (in one of the movie’s creepier scenes, and in fact one that made the rounds on YouTube labeled as a “real” monster sighting), and stupidly go into the woods to try to find it. The creature kills the man, goes back to the car and takes care of the woman, then circles around to a house. It attacks the woman living within and impregnates her. Her belly swells to gargantuan proportions in minutes, and then a fully-grown, blood-slick Sam comes crawling out of her monumentally wrecked vagina. After heading back into the woods and stealing the clothes off the car-driving dude he killed, Sam heads to London to try and track down his family.

Here’s where the whole thing gets a little more bizarre. Sam picks up Tony from school, so when Rachel comes to get the boy, she is told that his father has already taken him. She chases them down, and sees that Sam has indeed returned. She’s glad to see him, but angry that he seemingly left them three years earlier with no explanation. He says that he doesn’t remember anything about what happened, so Rachel feels bad for him and takes him back home. Tony is overjoyed to have his father back, but naturally Joe, the new boyfriend, is far less enthused, especially when it becomes clear that Sam doesn’t really have any intention of leaving and Rachel doesn’t have the heart to tell him to take a hike. Joe eventually sort-of moves out, though he’s still sharing the photography studio where he and Rachel both work.

So it’s all a very awkward family drama into which more weirdness soon manifests itself. Tony wakes up in the middle of the night covered in blood that isn’t his. The next day he catches his father eating the eggs of his pet snake, has a freakout, and hauls ass out of the house. Sam chases after him, reassures him that everything is fine and that he just needed to eat those eggs because he’s different now, and wouldn’t Tony like to be different too? Tony seems to relent, because hey, that’s his long-lost dad, so Sam creepily puts his lips on the kid’s neck and either starts sucking blood from him or inserting something into the blister he makes there.

HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU, DON'T DRINK SO MUCH RED TEMPERA PAINT BEFORE BED???

HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH RED TEMPERA PAINT BEFORE BED???

ALIEN DADS WHO GIVE THEIR SONS HICKEYS: NEXT ON MAURY.

ALIEN DADS WHO GIVE THEIR SONS HICKEYS: NEXT ON MAURY.

Later on, back at home, Sam tells his son that he has powers now, and can pretty much do anything he wishes to do, and that now Tony can too. Predictably, the first thing the kid uses his powers for is revenge: Tony’s pet snake escapes and turns up in the apartment of their busybody downstairs neighbor (played by Anna Wing), who chops the hapless reptile into pieces. Tony uses his newfound alien magic to animate a toy soldier and make it grow life-size, so that it can troop down to the busybody’s flat and poke her to death with a bayonet. It’s a weird, unsettling scene, not least because it doesn’t make much sense, and also because the actor playing the life-size toy soldier has some creepily inhuman movements to go with his plastic, unmoving face.

KNOWING HOW TO STAB YOUR NEIGHBORS IS HALF THE BATTLE.

KNOWING HOW TO STAB YOUR NEIGHBORS IS HALF THE BATTLE.

Tony also brings one of his clown dolls to life in the form of a sinister little person (Peter Mandell) who does his bidding. When Rachel decides to take Sam back to the farmhouse to see if he remembers anything about the night he disappeared, she leaves Tony in the care of the often-shirtless nanny. Analise wastes no time in inviting her boyfriend over for some afternoon delight, but Tony keeps pounding on the bedroom door, insisting she play hide and seek with him. Finally she agrees to a short game and begins searching the apartment for the boy, at which point Tony and his creepy clown henchman hit her on the head with a mallet and then drag her into the kitchen, where we later see that she has been attached to the wall in some sort of cocoon. Squishy eggs are squelching out of an ovipositor-type tube where the bottom half of her body was. The clown midget takes these eggs and places them lovingly in the refrigerator after coating the inside with some lumpy green goop. Analise’s boyfriend, by the way, is first chased and shot at by a toy tank, then attacked and eaten by a black panther that is inexplicably wandering the halls. Because aliens.

PREPARE TO TASTE TINY HELL.

PREPARE TO TASTE TINY HELL.

Back at the farmhouse, Rachel and Sam are going at it, but suddenly Rachel notices that Sam’s skin is starting to rot off. He takes off into the woods toward a bright light, and Rachel runs after him. Joe has brought Tony out to the farmhouse after he finds the kid running around outside the apartment alone and everybody else dead. Sam starts alien-ing like crazy, turning back into the creature we saw at the beginning. He makes a high-pitched shriek that apparently ruptures something in Joe’s brain, killing him. Then Sam gets to the light, and he has Tony with him, and Tony is starting to alien out too, hand in hand with his dad, and then they both disappear and Rachel is standing there in the field where the light just was, wondering what the fuck just happened. She doesn’t wonder long, though, because later on, she gets back to the apartment, finds the eggs in the upturned fridge, stupidly picks one up and stares at it until a little hand thing shoots out of it and attaches itself to her face and kills her.

IN 1980'S ENGLAND, OMELET EATS YOU.

IN 1980’S ENGLAND, OMELET EATS YOU.

So everybody dies, pretty much, except for Sam and Tony, who I guess live happily ever after on some alien planet far away, where they fill their days with telepathic toy control, big cat training regimens, and reptile-egg feasts. Did I mention this was a weird-ass movie? It’s kind of like a low-rent Cronenberg flick, what with all the goop and tentacles and vaginal imagery and creatures with backwards legs and what not, and even though the guy who played Joe kept reminding me of a lost member of the Romantics, I actually enjoyed the thing a great deal more than I thought I would. As I said, some of the images—the first sight of the creature scuttling across the dark road, the full-grown man emerging from the woman’s torn hoo-ha, the eerily grinning clown doll come to life—are really effective, and I quite liked the very downbeat, bleak drama of the whole family dynamic, which I guess is pretty typical of British films. It’s definitely an odd little film, but one that I’d recommend to fans of the genre. And with that, until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or ‘The Vision Thing’

In my previous post on The House of Clocks, I told you guys I was gonna get into some more under-appreciated Lucio Fulci goodness, and here I am making good on that promise, so don’t say I never gave you anything, okay? Okay. As I mentioned in the previous entry, Fulci could make a pretty decent film in any genre you’d care to name, and as fun as his horror gorefests are, some of his best movies fall more into the giallo or thriller genre. One of these, probably my favorite of his thrillers, is the subject of today’s post.

I'M WATCHING YOU. WATCHING AND JUDGING.

I’M WATCHING YOU. WATCHING AND JUDGING.

Sette Note In Nero, aka Seven Notes In Black, aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, aka The Psychic (damn those foreign distribution deals!) came out in Italy in 1977, though it wasn’t released on DVD in the US until many years later. It’s a tight little supernatural murder mystery that deftly maintains an air of heightening tension throughout the entire film, keeping you on that fabled edge of your seat until the very end. In addition, the set design is gorgeous, and the performances from leads Jennifer O’Neill and Gianni Garko seem to be excellent (the dubbing is a little distracting, but not nearly as bad as some other Italian films of the period). There is very little gore, other than an amusingly Fulci-an moment in the opening flashback scene where a suicidal woman repeatedly sloughs flesh off her face as she jumps to her death off a cliff; other than that, the only blood that appears accompanies a couple of not-terribly-graphic head wounds. So if you’re squeamish about that kind of thing, you may feel free to watch this movie while digging into a huge, glistening bowl of spaghetti marinara; you’ll probably be fine.

MANGIA MANGIA.

MANGIA MANGIA.

The Psychic, like several other gialli, utilizes a plot device I’ve always liked; I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but I’m going to call it “partially spoiling the outcome.” In other words, the viewer already knows more or less what’s going to happen, but the suspense of the film is generated by seeing the way in which the inevitable will come to pass. Even though the film is structured this way, it’s actually still full of surprises, which is one of the reasons I’ve always admired its rather clever screenplay (written by Dardano Sacchetti, who incidentally also penned a bunch of Fulci’s most beloved gore films, like City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery).

Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, an American interior decorator who has recently married a hotshot Italian playboy named Francesco. It is established in the first scene that Virginia is a clairvoyant; we see a flashback of her as a schoolgirl having a vision of her mother’s suicide. Back in the present, she drops her dashing husband off at an airfield for a business trip, and then drives down a highway punctuated by long, dark tunnels. As she drives through one of the tunnels, she suddenly has a disjointed and unsettling vision. Aspects of her vision include:

  1. Shafts of red light, and what appears to be someone placing a brick in a layer of mortar.
  2. A pretty but sinister little tune, like something from a music box.
  3. A cigarette with yellow paper balanced on the edge of a blue ashtray.
  4. A magazine with an attractive dark-haired woman on the cover.
  5. A yellow taxi parked on a dark street.
  6. A broken antique mirror.
  7. A sumptuously decorated room containing an overturned bust with a letter underneath it.
  8. A glimpse of a man’s feet as he walks with a decided limp.
  9. The clearly visible face of a man with a mustache, emerging from the shadows.
  10. An obviously dead old woman with blood all over her face and head.
  11. A room with a floor lamp with a red shade, and beyond that a wall with a substantial portion of the masonry removed.
BAROQUE AS FUCK.

BAROQUE AS FUCK.

I'VE FALLEN AND I CAN'T GET UP.

I’VE FALLEN AND I CAN’T GET UP.

REALLY ADDS A NICE "CASK OF AMONTILLADO" VIBE TO THE DECOR, DOESN'T IT?

REALLY ADDS A NICE “CASK OF AMONTILLADO” VIBE TO THE DECOR, DOESN’T IT?

After seeing this seemingly nonsensical collection of images, she awakens on the side of the highway with a police officer knocking on her window and asking if she’s all right. She snaps out of it pretty quickly, but is still troubled by what she’s seen and heard. Despite her unease, however, she continues on to her first destination, the office of her friend Luca Fattori (Marc Porel), who is a parapsychologist and has apparently been counseling Virginia about her visions for many years. She tells him about her latest vision and he records it, though he doesn’t believe it has any particular significance.

"cagna, si prega di"

“CAGNA, SI PREGA DI.”

Virginia’s next destination turns out to be an old palazzo that is owned by her husband Francesco. He hasn’t lived in it for several years, and it looks all but abandoned, but Virginia has decided that she is going to surprise him by starting to restore the beautiful old place. The caretaker lets her in and she begins poking around. In what was previously Francesco’s bedroom, Virginia starts removing the covers from the furniture and stops cold when one of the items revealed is the antique mirror she saw in her vision. The mirror isn’t broken as it was in her psychic episode, but it’s clearly the same one. Disturbed, she starts pulling off other covers, and yes, here is the floor lamp with the red shade. She glances over at the wall behind the lamp, which of course had a large section missing in her vision. It looks normal now, but she gets closer to inspect it. At first she doesn’t see anything and laughs at her own folly, but then she notices a very faint yellowed line and what appears to be a hairline crack. Still not completely sure she should be doing this, she finds a pickaxe in the basement and goes to town on the wall. It takes her forever, and the movie almost makes us think that there’s not gonna be anything back there, but nope, Virginia’s vision is vindicated (alliteration, bitches). She finds a skeleton and summons the polizia.

It seems clear that Virginia has seen a vision of the murder that ended up with a body walled up in her husband’s palazzo. She assumes that the victim was the dead old woman she saw, and that the murderer was the limping, mustachioed man lurking around on a staircase. So she’s a little put out when her husband is picked up for questioning as soon as he arrives back from his business trip. The cops and her lawyer assure her that this is just a formality, since the skeleton was found in Francesco’s house. Virginia is certain that he is not the murderer, not only because she saw another man in her vision, but also because the estimated time of death of the victim partially overlapped with a point in time, several years earlier, when Francesco was provably out of the country. Virginia is determined to clear her husband’s name, enlisting a couple of lawyers, Luca, Luca’s perky secretary Bruna (Jenny Tamburi), and Francesco’s sister Gloria (Evelyn Stewart) in this endeavor.

NOT TO WORRY, THE ITALIANS ARE ON THE CASE. THEY HAVE PIPES. AND PROBABLY MOB TIES.

NOT TO WORRY, THE ITALIANS ARE ON THE CASE. THEY HAVE PIPES. AND MAYBE MOB TIES.

Things get confusing pretty quickly, though. First of all, it’s discovered that the skeleton behind the wall is not that of an old woman at all, but of a 25-year-old woman named Agneta Bignardi. Upon seeing a photograph of her, Virginia realizes that she is the dark-haired woman on the magazine cover in her vision. Francesco admits to having a relationship with her several years back (uh-oh). And that’s not the only fact that seems to contradict her vision: she also sees the old woman, very much alive, outside her window one night and gets several phone messages from her in which she insists she knows something about the murder. Turns out that Francesco’s sister smokes cigarettes with yellow paper, and also gives her a watch that plays the sinister little tune she heard in her vision. The man she saw in her vision that she assumed was the murderer, Emilio Rospini (Gabriele Ferzetti), doesn’t have a limp, though he does seem to know something about the girl’s death and acts sinister as fuck. She finds a photograph of Agneta that was apparently taken several months after Francesco left Italy, meaning that the girl was probably killed by Rospini. Or was she?

SYMBOLISM (PROBABLY).

SYMBOLISM (PROBABLY).

The tense, nail-biting fun of this movie is seeing each of the images in her vision turning up one by one in reality, and trying to piece together how everything fits. The coolest aspect of this narrative structure (and this is a big ol’ SPOILER ALERT) is that for pretty much the first half of the movie, both the viewer and the film characters assume that Virginia’s vision was of the circumstances of the past murder. But as the story goes on, we slowly begin to realize, along with the characters, that Virginia’s vision was actually of the future, and the suspense gets more and more intense as the details begin to fill in and we realize what’s likely to happen and what exactly is at stake. It’s a self-contained and very satisfying narrative, and even though the very end leaves you going a little, “Wha…?” it’s still a taut, enjoyable ride.

Until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Double Your Pleasure

Twins are a well-established feature of the horror genre, and understandably so. Is there anything quite so unsettling to us singular folks as two people who appear more or less identical, but at the same time are still separate entities? Growing up, I had two sets of identical twins in my family (a pair of aunts and a pair of cousins), and while I never found them weird or scary at all, I was always fascinated as to what it would be like to have a clone of yourself living in the same house as you. Would you pull all sorts of switcheroos and other twinly shenanigans? Be able to communicate in your own invented language, or even telepathically? Murder a person and then accuse your twin, just for shits and giggles? The possibilities are staggering.

Obviously I’m not the only person who is intrigued by this stuff, judging by the plethora of horror films that feature creepy twins in either a central or peripheral role. Twins in film are generally made even more disturbing by the addition of some sort of psychic link between the pair, or perhaps a kind of bizarre incestuous relationship, or the designation of one twin as good and the other evil. A short list of films that make good use of this motif would include The Shining, City of Lost Children, The Dark Half, Basket Case, The Other, Twins of Evil, The Black Room, Jack’s Back, and, of course, the twin (ha!) subjects of today’s post.

Sisters_DeadRingers

Two of the best films in the twin-horror canon, I think we can all agree, are Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Both feature a profoundly screwed-up set of identical twins played by the same actor (Margot Kidder in Sisters and Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers), both bring up some uncomfortably creepy psychosexual issues between the siblings, and both feature a sort of good/evil dichotomy between the twins, with Sisters being the more obvious example of this trope.

GUESS WHICH “TWIN” THIS ONE IS.

GUESS WHICH “TWIN” THIS ONE IS.

Sisters was not Brian De Palma’s first film, but it was the first of the fantastic Hitchcockian thrillers that he would become so renowned for, and it already shows a director with a surefooted grasp of his material. He certainly got a bravura performance out of Margot Kidder, who is absolutely astonishing and wholly believable as French-Canadian model Danielle Breton, complete with spot-on accent. Early in the film, Danielle appears on a New York game show where she meets handsome ad salesman Philip (Lisle Wilson) and charms her way into a date. The pair seem to be hitting it off, though there is the small matter of Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (William Finley) following them around, and then there’s that large, unsightly scar on Danielle’s thigh. But love finds a way, sort of, and Danielle and Philip have an enjoyable night back at Danielle’s apartment in Staten Island.

The next morning, though, things look quite a bit stranger. Philip awakens to what sounds like Danielle arguing with another woman in French. She disappears into the bathroom and scarfs some red pills, then tells Philip that she would really appreciate it if he could just pop down to the pharmacy and get her some more of the drugs, pretty please. He asks what the deal was with the French arguing, and Danielle tells him that her twin sister Dominique has come over to the apartment because it is their birthday, and Dominique is upset that Philip is there. He feels bad and offers to leave, but Danielle tells him to hang around. He agrees to come back after his pharmacy errand, and leaves the apartment. While he’s out, he spots a bakery, and being a considerate kinda guy, he ducks in there and buys a cake for Danielle and Dominique’s birthday.

Meanwhile, Danielle is back at the apartment and doesn’t appear to be doing too well. She’s screaming at someone on the phone that she’s out of pills, she’s writhing around on the bathroom floor as if she’s in terrible pain; the whole thing is just not looking terribly kosher. When Philip returns, he finds Danielle (or at least he thinks it’s Danielle) sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the living room. He quietly lights all the candles on the cake, gets a knife out of the kitchen to cut it with, then sets the cake down on the bed in front of the sleeping “Danielle.”

Wrong move, Philip.

I’M DIABETIC, YOU INSENSITIVE ASSHOLE!

I’M DIABETIC, YOU INSENSITIVE ASSHOLE!

Poor Philip gets ventilated pretty effectively, but before he dies, he manages to crawl to a window and write “help” on it in blood. This turn of events is witnessed by a neighbor across the courtyard, Grace Collier, who happens to be a journalist working for some two-bit newspaper but aspiring to much greater things. Said aspirations had previously prompted her to write a whole newspaper series on police corruption, so as you can imagine, when she calls the cops to report the murder in her apartment building, they’re reluctant to listen to her. They eventually show up, grudgingly, and she argues with them in the lobby. Meanwhile, utilizing one of his beloved split-screen effects, De Palma shows us that Danielle is apparently shocked at the carnage that Dominique has wrought. Her ex-husband Emil, who of course had been watching her the entire time, snaps into action to help cover up the murder. They roll Philip’s body into the hide-a-bed, clean up the blood streaks on the floors and windows, and generally get everything spic-and-span. By the time the cops come knocking on Danielle’s door with a squawking Grace in tow, there is no apparent trace of the murder at all, other than a single blot of blood on the back of the sofa that the annoyed cops don’t even notice. Grace tries to sneak around and do her own investigation, but the cops keep getting more and more pissed off because they don’t see any evidence that a murder has taken place. Grace plays the racial angle, accusing the cops of not caring about the victim because he was a black man killed by a white woman. As she’s snooping around, she finds the birthday cake with both sisters’ names on it in the refrigerator, and tries to bring it out to show the cops in order to claim that the charming Danielle is covering up for a twin sister who is not present. Wouldn’t you know, it, though, Grace slips on the just-cleaned floor and drops the cake before the cops can see what it said. Heh heh.

The remainder of the film has Grace bound and determined to nail Danielle for the murder, even going so far as to hire a private detective (played by Charles Durning) to break into the woman’s apartment and later follow a moving truck that took away the telltale sofa the day after the murder. During Grace’s investigation, she discovers that Danielle’s twin Dominique had actually been a conjoined twin (hence Danielle’s scar), but had died a year previously after the surgery to separate the women. So now we understand that Danielle has taken on the mantle of both the good twin and the evil, and without her pills, she manifests Dominique’s psychopathic tendencies without being aware that she is doing so.

The creepiest part of this film comes toward the end, as De Palma takes us in an unexpected direction. Grace is following Danielle and Emil, and she ends up at some sort of open-door psychiatric hospital out in the country. She watches through a window as Emil drugs Danielle with a syringe. Grace goes into the hospital and tries to use the phone to call the cops, but she is thwarted by staff and by the crazy patients. Emil appears and tells a staffer that Grace’s name is Margaret, and that she is a new patient. Grace, of course, violently protests that she is crazy, but like a dumb ass, she has left her identification in her car, so no one believes her, and the more she protests, the crazier she seems. Emil takes her away, drugs her, and hypnotizes her, giving her a post-hypnotic suggestion that she saw no body and no murder.

YOU SAW NOTHIN’, CAPISCHE?

YOU SAW NOTHIN’, CAPISCHE?

There then follows a very disturbing sequence wherein a drugged Grace has a dream in which she stands in for the insane Dominique, reliving the trials of the conjoined twins’ separation a year earlier. She sees herself on a hospital bed in an operating theater, and as she glances over, she sees that she is attached to Danielle.

WELL, HEY. DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE YOU THERE.

WELL, HEY. DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE YOU THERE.

Emil is hovering over Danielle lovingly, and the two kiss and make out while Grace/Dominique sulks on one side of the bed. “Make her go away,” Danielle begs Emil, and then Grace looks around to see all these freaky-ass looking people in the operating theater, passing a cleaver from hand to hand. Turns out that the twins were ultimately separated because Danielle was miscarrying and would have died if her sister was not detached. It’s all very nightmarish and disturbing, and it all ends up with Emil chopping the sisters apart with the cleaver, and then Danielle killing Emil with a scalpel and freely confessing to his murder (but not Philip’s), and Grace being rescued from the hospital by the police, though the post-hypnotic suggestion Emil gave her stays in effect, and she keeps vehemently insisting that there was never any murder and no body. The final, somewhat farcical shot is of the sofa containing Philip’s body sitting at an abandoned train station.

DON’T WORRY, DETECTIVE MOO MCLANAHAN IS ON THE CASE.

DON’T WORRY, DETECTIVE MOO MCLANAHAN IS ON THE CASE.

As good as Sisters is, however, it can’t begin to approach the skin-crawling weirdness of the quintessential creepy-twin movie, Dead Ringers. David Cronenberg, of course, is the undisputed master of squicky sexual perversion and gross-out body horror, his particular fascination lying in the myriad ways the body can go horrifically wrong from within, through parasitical infection (Shivers), disease (Rabid), disfigurement (Crash), techno-biological enhancement (VideodromeeXistenZ) or some other type of bizarre transformation (The Fly).

Dead Ringers, though, focuses less on the physical and more on the psychological (though there are plenty of uncomfortable Cronenberg flourishes in the form of gynecological instruments for “mutant women”).

YOU KNOW YOU’RE A GREAT DIRECTOR WHEN WE CAN TELL IT’S YOUR MOVIE FROM JUST A SINGLE STILL.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE A GREAT DIRECTOR WHEN WE CAN TELL IT’S YOUR MOVIE FROM JUST A SINGLE STILL.

Jeremy Irons turns in a staggering (and award-winning) performance as twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle; his portrayal of the two characters is so effective that the viewer can ALWAYS tell immediately which twin is which, even though they are both played by the same person. Beverly is bookish and sensitive, while Elliot is cocky and borderline sociopathic. Despite their differing personalities, though, the pair are inseparably, creepily attached to each other, living together in a swank apartment and often taking one another’s place with no one around them being the wiser. “Listen. You haven’t had any experience until I’ve had it too,” Elliot tells Beverly at one point, and as the movie progresses, we see the sort of twisted dynamic these two have going on, and witness the havoc it wreaks around them.

HOW EMBARRASSING! WE BOTH WORE THE SAME THING!

HOW EMBARRASSING! WE BOTH WORE THE SAME THING!

The famous Mantle twins are lauded as geniuses in their field, showered with awards and accolades. They own a world-renowned fertility clinic in Toronto, and it is here that they meet the agent of their eventual unraveling: a beautiful, tragic actress named Claire Niveau (Geneviéve Bujold), who is in town shooting a movie. Claire desperately wants a baby, but has had no luck at any of the other fertility clinics she has visited because she is the possessor of a rare mutation, a “trifurcated cervix.” The Mantle clinic is her last hope to get pregnant, but unfortunately, even they can do nothing to help her, although Elliot, cad that he is, is quite happy to seduce her and then pass her on to Beverly when he grows tired of her. Claire, who is from out of town, has no idea that Elliot and Beverly are two separate people, and becomes involved with what she thinks is one sexy (if vaguely schizo) doctor.

Later, Claire is at lunch with a friend who has heard about her dalliance and asks her which of the Mantles she’s been seeing. Claire is shocked at the news that there are two of these freakazoids, and figures out pretty quickly that she’s been unknowingly acting as the gooey filling in a Mantle-twin Oreo. On her next date with Beverly, she asks to meet Elliot. He balks at the idea, but she insists, and in the next scene, we see her sitting down with both of them in a restaurant, clearly ready to tear them both new assholes. “There’s really no telling you apart, is there?” she says as she looks from one to the other of them. Elliot makes a joke about being a bit taller, and Claire says there’s a better way to tell them apart. “Beverly’s the sweet one, and you’re the shit.” She then tells them that she’s been through some creepy things before, but this really takes the whole perverted enchilada, and then she asks them if they have a whole routine going, where Beverly softens up their dupes with his sensitivity and then leaves the girls to be finished off by the cold Elliot, but Elliot lives up to his reputation by saying, cruelly, “Actually I fucked you first, but I passed you to my baby brother because you weren’t very good.”

APPLY OINTMENT LIBERALLY TO BURN AREA.

APPLY OINTMENT LIBERALLY TO BURN AREA.

Claire throws a drink in Beverly’s face and storms out. Elliot thinks it’s all very amusing, but then he notices that Beverly is crying. Yes, Bev has actually fallen for Claire and is heartbroken at what has transpired. Later on, he is able to convince her to give him another chance, but after she leaves town after the movie she is working on is finished shooting, Beverly spirals into depression and sinks further into the drug addiction he’d been exploring with Claire. He begins having delusions about mutant women, inspired by Claire’s cervical mutation, and has frightening-looking tools commissioned so that he can ostensibly work on these women. After attacking one of his patients with one of the tools, Beverly is suspended along with his twin. Elliot tries to straighten Beverly out, but only ends up getting addicted to drugs himself. Claire comes back and Beverly seems to get his shit together, but now Elliot is screwed. In a final, chilling sequence, the twins celebrate a “birthday” with cake and ice cream, Beverly kills Elliot with one of the gynecological tools in a symbolic gesture to “separate the Siamese twins,” and then it transpires that Beverly actually cannot live without his other half, and he dies in his brother’s arms. Creepy, creepy shit.

NOT JUDGING, BUT THEY MIGHT BENEFIT FROM SOME FAMILY THERAPY.

NOT JUDGING, BUT THEY MIGHT BENEFIT FROM SOME FAMILY THERAPY.

Twins, I suspect, are effective in horror movies because as natural döppelgangers, they can encompass the good/evil, Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy in a very direct, compact way, either as both good and evil fighting it out in the same body (as with Sisters), or being split between two “half-people” who cannot survive as individuals (as in Dead Ringers). In any case, I’m sure the twin trope isn’t going away any time soon, as it’s such an easy method to explore universal themes of the light and dark side of human nature. Hope you’ve enjoyed this two-fer post, and as always, until next time, this is the Goddess (and her evil twin) signing off.

I'M CLEARLY THE CUTE ONE.

I’M CLEARLY THE CUTE ONE.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Time Ain’t on Your Side

Despite my oft-repeated love of subtle, atmospheric horror, I will also admit to being something of a gorehound. And I’m assuming that my fellow gorehounds will be intimately familiar with the works of the legendary Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci. Although Fulci made movies in pretty much every conceivable genre (comedies, westerns, thrillers, cop dramas), he is today primarily remembered as The Godfather of Gore, and widely beloved for scenes like these:

I’M HALF THE MAN I USED TO BE

I’M HALF THE MAN I USED TO BE

HEAD LIKE A HOLE

HEAD LIKE A HOLE

ANDALUSIAN DOGGY STYLE

ANDALUSIAN DOGGY STYLE

NO GUTS, NO GORY

NO GUTS, NO GORY

However, true to my contrarian nature, I’d like to discuss one of Fulci’s lesser-appreciated horror films, one that is perhaps not as colorful as the above examples, but serves as a reminder that the cranky, bespectacled Italian was more than capable of producing a disturbing, relatively low-key scare experience without necessarily resorting to buckets of blood and entrails.

1989’s The House of Clocks (aka La Casa nel Tempo) was actually filmed for Italian cable television, but was considered too violent for TV. It never aired, and was later relegated to direct-to-video hell. Briefly, it tells the chilling story of an elderly couple, Victor and Sarah (Paolo Paolini and Bettine Milne) who are set upon by a group of three robbers in their palatial home in the country. The gang sort-of-accidentally murders the oldsters during the attempted heist, but then they begin to notice that some weird-ass shit is going on in the spooky old mansion. The countless clocks around the place all mysteriously stop at the exact moment the couple are killed, and thereafter follows a bizarre narrative where time itself appears to be running backwards. The crotchety codgers seem to return from the dead to take revenge, but then they are apparently killed again, and then other people are returning from the dead, and then it turns out that the robbers were just high the whole time and never even entered the house at all, but then they get killed in a car crash before the robbery even happens, or something…? Anyway, like many Italian horror movies, the plot doesn’t really make a lick of sense, but if you can just go with the flow and soak up the unsettling, well-constructed atmosphere, then I think you’ll find that House of Clocks is a wonderfully eerie and underrated film in Fulci’s vast canon.*

and if you disagree, someone has a bone to pick with you.

one, you lock the target.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about this movie is its use of one of my favorite horror tropes: Malevolent Old Folks. Sure, lots of movies have spooky children, but fewer utilize the other end of the age spectrum in such an effective way. Creepy old people are creepy, I assume, for one of the same reasons that creepy children are: namely, that people tend to view both children and the elderly as rather innocent and harmless, so when they go bad, it fucks with our sense of perspective about how the world should work. Old people, though, also have the additional creep factor of being far closer to death, thus subconsciously reminding us of our own impending decline and inevitable expiration.

Victor and Sarah are a prime example of this. I find that I almost want to compare them to the evil Castavets from Rosemary’s Baby, though where the Castavets lured the Woodhouses into their web using a sort of potty charm and conscientiousness that bordered on bullying, Victor and Sarah feign a doddering helplessness to throw the gang of robbers off their game. The suspense in House of Clocks comes from the fact that viewers are aware right from the beginning that the old folks are not the sweetly genteel grandparents they appear to be. In the very first scene, for example, the sexually-ambiguous housekeeper creeps around the mansion with clear trepidation, and eventually stumbles upon a hidden chapel containing two rotting corpses in wedding clothes who have been stabbed through the throat with huge nails. And the next scene shows Victor, in his gentlemanly black suit, entering the dining room for breakfast. He picks up and pets a kitty cat, then he notices a pretty little bird sitting on the open windowsill. He feeds the bird some toast and coos at it, looking lovingly down at the tiny creature just seconds before he smashes it to death with his cane. And directly afterwards, there’s a really disturbing sequence where Victor and Sarah are in the chapel with the dead bride and groom. Victor casually hammers the bride’s throat-nail in deeper, and then brushes some dust off the groom’s coat. Sarah peers through her glasses and shakily reapplies the bride’s lipstick, then kisses her forehead. All the while, the geriatric pair are sadly lamenting to the corpses (who are their nephew and his wife, it turns out) that they were ungrateful little shits who were only after the couple’s money. So yeah, Santa and Mrs. Claus these two ain’t.

we could have just put lumps of coal in your stockings, but we decided to throat-stab you instead.

we could have just put lumps of coal in your stockings, but we decided to throat-stab you instead.

By now, you’ve probably got the gist that these fossils are definitely not to be trifled with, but Fulci isn’t done. The very next scene shows the housekeeper, Maria (Carla Cassola) approaching the greenhouse. She passes one-eyed groundskeeper Peter (Al Cliver), who appears to be digging a grave in the garden. She then goes into the greenhouse and finds Sarah fussing over her flowers. She informs Sarah that she will have to be leaving the couple’s employ to care for her mother. Sarah takes this all in stride, making sympathetic and understanding noises right before swiftly turning, grabbing some kind of spear-like garden implement, and stabbing Maria right in the delta of Venus.

YOU CAN’T QUIT, I’M FIRING YOU!

YOU CAN’T QUIT, I’M FIRING YOU!

The cool thing about the first twenty minutes of the film is that Fulci takes his time setting up the couple’s murderous streak in spades, so when the robbers show up, you’re thinking, “Oh man, did you dipshits pick the wrong house to plunder.” But then he toys with our expectations by having Victor and Sarah get blown away almost immediately.

YOU THINK A GAPING CHEST WOUND IS GONNA STOP THIS LADY? HELL NO. SHE’S A PISTOL, THAT ONE.

YOU THINK A GAPING CHEST WOUND IS GONNA STOP THIS LADY? HELL NO. SHE’S A PISTOL, THAT ONE.

It is only then that the viewer realizes that not only can the feisty seniors handily kick ass in this life, but also apparently can bend space and time to their will, making them able to fuck your shit up before you even did anything. There should be some kind of hardcore AARP for these two to join, is what I’m saying.

Also, is it weird that I sort of wish Victor and Sarah were my grandparents? Sure, you’d never, ever ask them to borrow fifty bucks to cover your electric bill, but if you were super nice and appreciative they’d probably have you over to their wicked-cool mansion for tea and scones, and if anybody ever messed with you, your beloved Nana and Pop-Pop could take care of your little problem with a minimum of fuss, even returning from the dead to do so if necessary. Just a tip, though: if Victor and Sarah do you the favor of gorily eliminating one of your sworn enemies, the least you can do is call them on their birthdays or bring them a case of Ensure or tape that Matlock marathon for them or something, for heaven’s sakes. You know, give something back, that’s all they ask.

should have given nana those coffee coupons, shouldn't you? she did ask nicely.

should have given nana those coffee coupons, shouldn’t you? she did ask nicely.

Until next time, Goddess out.

*If you’re a Fulci fan, keep watching this space, because I eventually want to do a writeup on another of Fulci’s underseen gems, 1977’s The Psychic (aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes).

The Goddess Dons Her Tinfoil Hat and Beats a Dead Horse with a Roque Mallet

In my previous post comparing Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining with Stephen King’s vastly inferior TV miniseries, I offhandedly mentioned the staggering variety of “conspiracy theories” surrounding Kubrick’s film without going into particular detail about any of them. I didn’t think it was necessary to exhaustively catalogue all the crazy interpretations that have appeared over the years, not only because there are endless sites already doing just that (hell, Shining conspiracy theories even have their own wiki, and just last year a documentary called Room 237 outlined the most common ones), but also because I think the great majority of them are utter, overreaching horseshit. No, I do not believe that Kubrick was trying to send us secret messages about faking the moon landing, or about CIA mind control, or about the Holocaust, or about the impending Mayan apocalypse.

This guy probably does, though.

This guy probably does, though.

However…

Artists, particularly ones of Kubrick’s caliber, absolutely do put hidden meanings and subtexts into their work, and it would be silly to argue that they don’t. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to impart some kind of secret knowledge about the universe’s inner workings or anything; it’s just that they’re trying to make their films or books or whatever a richer experience for their audience by adding “clues” to underlying themes for the viewers to puzzle out on their own. It’s hard to deny that Kubrick’s The Shining is loaded with this stuff, and obviously a great deal of it was deliberate, because that’s what artists, at least good ones, try to do.

After my recent rewatch of the TV miniseries, I spent several hours poring over different people’s interpretations of Kubrick’s film, and then decided to rewatch his 1980 adaptation with the various “conspiracies” in mind. After the film, the God of Hellfire and I were discussing it yet again (and yes, I can totally see why this movie has spawned so much obsessive speculation since it came out, thank you for asking), and suddenly, the GoH had something of a revelation (and this will be kinda funny later, I promise).*

Here’s the deal. Several of the so-called conspiracy theories out there (and I hesitate to call them that; I prefer to call them subtexts or motifs) have hit upon different facets of Kubrick’s overarching theme. But the GoH’s post-film epiphany (and all credit to him, as it was his excited discourse that inspired me to wade into the fray and write this post) seemed to tie together many of the more reasonable theories put forth by others into one coherent whole. I slogged through several pages of Google searches to see if anyone else had come up with this particular angle before, and while I found it hinted at in several places, I found no one who had laid the entire thing out in a clear framework the way the GoH did. If after reading this post you can find someone who has hit upon this exact slant, then kindly point me in that direction, but for now, I’m going give tentative props and kudos to my sexy male counterpart for coming up with what seems to be a pretty original take on Kubrick’s masterpiece. So let me see if I can break this all down.

Screw you, indigenous population!

Screw you, indigenous population!

Exhibit One: Native American Genocide
By far the most common and obvious subtext attributed to The Shining has to do with the slaughter of the Native Americans. Near the beginning of the film, as he is giving the Torrance family a tour of the Overlook, manager Stuart Ullman tells them point blank that the hotel was built over a Native American burial ground, and further, that a few “Indian attacks” had to be “repelled” while the Overlook was under construction in the early 20th century. In addition, the hotel itself is decorated in a Native American theme (Navajo and Apache, according to Ullman), there are several conspicuous placements of cans of Calumet baking powder (Calumet uses a Native American in a warrior’s headdress as its logo, and the word “calumet” means “peace pipe”), and many of Wendy Torrance’s fashion choices bear Native American-style motifs. There is also Jack’s twice-repeated use of the phrase “white man’s burden” to Lloyd the bartender as he is downing his bourbon (with alcohol being yet another purported tool of the natives’ subjugation by whitey).

Other interpreters of this particular thematic element have stated that Kubrick was making a not-so-subtle indictment of the Native American genocide, and it’s easy to see how they come to that conclusion. In this scenario, Jack represents the “white man” who subjugates his wife and son the way the Europeans subjugated the native population. But according to the GoH’s reading of it, this is only tangentially correct. I will go into more detail about this after I’ve laid out all the tendrils, so just be patient.

Where's the little silver ball?

Where’s the little silver ball?

Exhibit Two: The Minotaur’s Maze
Another fairly obvious touchstone in Kubrick’s film is the repeated reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The director significantly changed King’s hedge animals to a hedge maze, and Wendy even compares the hotel itself to a maze as Halloran is showing her around the kitchen. In addition, the carpet patterns in much of the hotel’s decor are decidedly mazelike. Further, there is one scene that shows an increasingly bullish-appearing Jack lurking menacingly over a model of the maze, staring down at it as tiny simulacrums of his wife and son navigate their way through the real labyrinth outside. And at the climax, of course, Jack chases Danny through the maze, his speech becoming more and more animalistic as the chase progresses. Danny even finds his way out of the maze by following his father’s footprints in the snow, just as Theseus followed the golden thread (it’s also significant in this context that the main ballroom of the Overlook is called “The Gold Room”).

Hmmmm, could it be...Satan?

Hmmmm, could it be…Satan?

Exhibit Three: The Faust Connection
Right here is where we’re getting close to hitting upon the underlying framework that ties the disparate elements together. It is significant that the phrase Jack utters just before the first appearance of Lloyd the bartender is, “I’d give my soul for a drink.” Seconds after this pronouncement, Lloyd is standing before him and immediately indulges his wish, and it is from here that Jack’s true downward spiral begins. So in this sense, Jack has just made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, or in this case the “spirit” of the Overlook hotel, represented by Lloyd. Further evidence of this particular theme comes in the very final moments of the film, when we see a closeup of the black-and-white photo from 1921 on the wall of the Overlook. Jack is standing before a crowd of jazz-age partygoers, with his right hand raised, palm facing toward us, and his left hand by his side, pointing toward the floor. This strange pose subtly recollects the Tarot figure of Baphomet, aka, Satan, y’all.

'Sup.

‘Sup.

Sure, Goddess, I hear you saying, but all of those theories have been put forth many times, so what the hell is so compellingly new that you felt you had to blather on and on about it? Well, hear me out now. How can these three seemingly different themes be all of one piece? The GoH thinks he knows how, and it can be summed up in two words: Black. Magic. Or perhaps more specifically, ancient pagan religion, fostered through blood sacrifice and ritual.

'Sup.

‘Sup.

I admit it sounds sort of crackpotty at first blush, but consider the following:

1. During his first interview at the Overlook, Jack wonders why the hotel is closed during the winter months, since it seems that the skiing up there would be fantastic. Ullman tells him that it would not be cost-effective to keep the 25-mile road leading up to the Overlook open, and then significantly adds that at the time the hotel was built, its clientele were not interested in winter sports as much as they were the “seclusion” of the Overlook’s location, and its beautiful natural view.

2. As Ullman is showing the Torrances around the hotel’s interior, he mentions that scads of movie stars, presidents, and other prominent folks (including well-known gangsters, though he doesn’t explicitly mention that) have graced the Overlook’s hallowed halls. “Royalty?” Wendy asks. “All the best people,” answers Ullman.

3. Near the end of the film, as Wendy is frantically running around the hotel looking for Danny, she briefly sees an apparition of a clearly Very Important Dude in a tux getting blown by a man in a bear costume. While this is going on, and at several points subsequently as Jack chases Danny through the maze, the soundtrack of the film treats us to background “music” that sounds an awful lot like ritualistic chanting.

So what do these three details mean in relation to the well-worn theories I outlined above? Well, in the GoH’s perceptive scenario, the Overlook itself can be seen as a sort of temple of black magic, or perhaps more concisely, a place of ancient pagan worship much like the sacrificial temples of the Mayans, the Happy Hunting Grounds of the Native Americans, or the Valhalla of the Vikings. It was created, either deliberately or accidentally, to act as a place that “shined,” that used the power of sacrifice — either through blood or the psychic energy of people with the “shining” — as a consecration to create a vortex of eternal debauchery akin to a type of hell (or perhaps a heaven, depending on your perspective).

Just gonna leave this here.

Just gonna leave this here.

Think about it. The Overlook was built as a playground for the wealthy elite. Said elite were keen to make sure that the location was “secluded.” Not only was the hotel slapped right on top of an Indian burial ground, but Native Americans were “repelled” (i.e. killed, sacrificed) during its construction. Further, the hotel was then festooned with Native American symbology. The Colorado Lounge in particular, with its tall stained glass windows, high ceilings, and Jack’s writing desk in place of an altar, looks like nothing so much as a sort of pagan cathedral.

colorado wideshot from 1st floor

Not only was this made to be perhaps a sort of mockery or inversion of the Native Americans’ spiritual beliefs (in much the same way the Satanic Black Mass can be seen as an inversion of Christianity), but also as a type of co-option or embracing of the primal qualities of those that were sacrificed. Why would the wealthy elite who patronized the hotel want it to be so secluded, after all, unless they were planning on using it as a place to indulge their “baser” natures and embrace the primal, the primitive, the savage, the animalistic? Murder, crime, debauchery, decadence, endless partying, wild sex: these were the “rituals” in this new “industrial” tribe of rich white elites. (Incidentally, this may be why Halloran was able to work at the Overlook for so long without being assimilated, because by being black, he was of the wrong “tribe.”) They didn’t just want to plow under the “pagans,” you see, they also wanted to become them, or at least become like their own perception of the “savages” as man close to a state of nature. By indulging in their “primitive” shenanigans and trying to overcome their own detachment from nature, they perhaps inadvertently created something that a tribe of “primitives” would have created on purpose: a cult of nature that was fed with blood and sex magic.

So they built a swanky pleasure palace on sacred ground, tamed the natural landscape into a regimented hedge maze, and then proceeded to out-savage the “savages.” Ullman’s demarcation of the Overlook’s clientele as “all the best people” was perhaps Kubrick slyly insinuating that the rich degenerates who stayed at the hotel were not the “best” people at all. Maybe they weren’t even the worst people. They were just people like any other, prone to brutality and primitivism just like anyone else, though afforded greater latitude in their pursuit of degeneracy because of their exalted status. This is why the “animal” theme recurs, not only in the Minotaur allusions (the child sacrifice theme is clearly pertinent in this myth, and what were the Greco-Romans known for if not pagan debauchery?) and the bear costume, but in subtle animal motifs that appear in Danny’s drawings, background posters, characters’ clothing, and other places around the hotel.

Have you been helped?

Have you been helped?

DANNY!!! AAARRRGGGGLLLLLLRRRRRGGHHH!!!

DANNY!!! AAARRRGGGGLLLLLLRRRRRGGHHH!!!

And this is why the odd chanting on the soundtrack recurs, as a sort of cue to the viewer that the temple is about to accept a new infusion of blood and energy. The Overlook indeed strikes a Faustian bargain with its chosen victims: make a sacrifice of blood (Grady’s daughters, Halloran, the attempted killing of Wendy and Danny) and for you and your sacrificial victims, the “party” will continue forever.

High five, heathens.

High five, heathens.

*One of the more out-there theories that I didn’t go into in this post concerns Kubrick’s supposed use of recurring numbers in the film. While there’s no doubt that certain numbers turn up more than you would expect by chance alone (42 and 12 most prominently), and there is probably some reason why Kubrick chose to do this (especially since he deliberately changed the number of the scariest room from 217 in the book to 237 in the film; as others have pointed out, 2+3+7=12 and 2x3x7=42), I’ve always been of the opinion that the various “numerological” theories put forth about The Shining mostly strain credulity.

But in light of the GoH’s reading of the Overlook as a sort of “Satanic temple” metaphor, I thought I’d toddle on over to some numerology websites and see if those numbers had any particular significance (and yes, since you ask, I am a little embarrassed that those sites are now in my Google cache). I’m not gonna say that there’s necessarily anything to these numerological interpretations, but interestingly, in the Bible, Revelation 13:5 states: “The Beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.” The number 42, you guys. Douglas Adams was right!

So…The Shining and ancient magic: yay or nay? Please throw hosannas or brickbats as the case may be. And until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Tale of Two Shinings

It seems as though I start a lot of these blog posts with a half-assed apology for not sticking to my own arbitrary, self-imposed “rules” for the content I discuss, and I regret to inform you that this is going to be another one of those times. Yes, The Shining and the well-publicized blood feud between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of nearly endless internet debate, but for some reason it’s a subject I’m obsessively fascinated by and often get into long, rambling conversations about, which means that you will now have to endure said ramblings in my patented type-diarrhea form. Sorry in advance. (Not really.)

I’m going to go in a slightly skewed direction with this, though; rather than discuss the drastic differences between King’s book and Kubrick’s film, and the subsequent 34-year hatefest between them, I’d like to delve more into the contrasts between Kubrick’s film and King’s 1997 mini-series adaptation. Yes, I will obviously have to talk about the book too, so readers may see this as a distinction without a difference, but hey, I’m trying to just carve out a semi-original niche for myself here, so cut me some slack.

PICTURED: SLACK, AND THE CUTTING THEREOF.

PICTURED: SLACK, AND THE CUTTING THEREOF.

Let me just take a few moments to talk about Stephen King as a writer. I would consider myself a fan, though I admit I haven’t read anything of his newer than Under the Dome, which I enjoyed but promptly forgot the second I finished it. I definitely feel as though the quality of his work has declined post-car-accident, and I know I am not alone in that opinion; his more recent work just doesn’t stick with you the way his earlier stuff does. I would never go so far as to call him a hack, as some have done; he’s a very good “popular” writer, and he’s written some absolutely GREAT books, The Shining among them. Is The Shining as great as, say, Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which partly inspired it? Hell no, and only an idiot would argue otherwise. But The Shining scared the ever-loving bejesus out of me the first time I read it, and has held up very well over multiple re-reads over the years. When King is on, he’s really, really on.

Here’s what I find weird, though. I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts how much I love Danse Macabre, King’s scattershot but surprisingly astute analysis of horror in entertainment. In fact, on this very blog, I have used paraphrases from that book to back up some of my own viewpoints about what works and doesn’t work in horror; namely, that ambiguity and perhaps even obfuscation are necessary for really effective scares. What is unknown and largely unexplained is always more terrifying than what is known. King seems to grasp this, and even singles out books and films that were effective for this very reason, but when he is given the reins of a film project, he never seems to take his own advice. He has never really appeared to understand that literature and film are two completely different (hedge) animals; in a novel, you can, to some degree, get away with huge chunks of exposition and meticulous description of detail, because you are creating an entire world in the reader’s head. In film, everything is paraded right in front of your eyes, which means you have to exercise some measure of restraint, both in what you show and what you keep hidden. This is something that King has never really been able to do, judging both by adaptations of his work that he’s had a hand in (like Maximum Overdrive, which was similar to pro-wrestling in the sense that it was big, loud, and stupid, but also sorta fun, though no one would call it a masterpiece of celluloid), and adaptations done by others that he claimed he enjoyed (Children of the Corn, The Mangler). King is a good writer, and to be frank, sometimes I wish that he would just be content enough with that, and not try to dabble in mediums that are obviously not suited to his (quite prodigious) talents.

All that said, let’s dissect the 1997 mini-series, shall we? I remember seeing it when it initially came out; since I had always been such a big fan of both the book and of Kubrick’s adaptation, and was well aware of King’s tendency to royally whiff any film project he touched, I went into the viewing with some trepidation. And I’m sad to say that most of my worst fears about King’s version duly came to pass, and I ended up not even finishing the series because I hated it so much.

Fast forward to 2014. The God of Hellfire (henceforth GoH) and I were discussing The Shining because of a radio program we’d been listening to about Kubrick’s use of symbolism. I think I happened to mention that I had really detested the 1997 mini-series that King had made, as it seemed like nothing more than a self-indulgent, jealousy-fueled, bitchy dismissal of Kubrick’s singular vision. The GoH said that he’d actually liked the mini-series, mainly because he felt it was closer to the spirit of the book and followed the plot more faithfully (though he still agrees that Kubrick’s version was better). I hadn’t seen the thing in a long time, and I was willing to entertain the idea that the mini-series might not have been quite as terrible as I remembered, so late one night we sat down with our cigarettes and chocolate milk and watched the entire six hours in one go.

I will say straight out that indeed, the mini-series was actually not the atrocity I’d remembered it as. It wasn’t great, by any means, and parts of it were pretty cringe-inducing, but at no point during its run time did I feel as though I wanted to scoop out my own eyeballs or drop-kick a puppy into a wood chipper or anything like that. So…not awful, but a mediocre misfire at best. The problem with the entire production, I think, is what I was alluding to earlier, about King not fully understanding the differing strengths and weaknesses of the film medium as opposed to the literature medium. King’s version of The Shining is certainly far more faithful to the source material than Kubrick’s, perhaps even slavishly so, but that, to me, is the exact reason why it doesn’t really work.

ONE OF SEVERAL REASONS, IN FACT.

ONE OF SEVERAL REASONS, IN FACT.

The main difference between the two adaptations is that King’s was literal while Kubrick’s was mythic. A stark illustration of this is the fact that King’s mini-series was filmed in and around the Stanley Hotel, the real location that the Overlook was based on, while Kubrick’s Overlook, built entirely as a set, had a more otherworldly, dreamlike, and hence mythical quality.

One of King’s main criticisms of Kubrick’s film was that in casting Jack Nicholson, Kubrick presents a man who is clearly a raging lunatic right from the get-go. King tried to rectify this by casting “Wings” star Steven Weber as Jack Torrance 2.0, but I have to say that both King’s criticism and his attempt to realign the character to more suit his tastes is not really fair or effective. Weber is a good enough actor, but it’s obvious he’s striving to play Jack as a fallen “good” guy, and his portrayal suffers from a veneer of forced joviality. This is a character, remember, who was even portrayed in the book as an abusive alcoholic who may have had some redemptive qualities at his core. Nicholson’s Jack, while certainly something of a departure from the novel character, was more effective on screen because he exuded the anger and desperation of a man teetering on the brink of insanity at all times. This made him almost unbearably menacing, and thus the film that much more frightening.

King’s most persistent gripe, though, was that Kubrick’s film was soulless, that the heart of King’s book was ripped out and stomped flat in service to Kubrick’s coldly logical exploration of pet themes. While I can see why King would see it that way, I feel that he’s kind of missing the point. Yes, Kubrick simply used the frame of King’s story to hang his own vision on, and along the way may have altered the original intent of King’s novel (though not as much as King thinks he did, in my opinion). But I don’t think Kubrick was so much concerned with the sentimental, pedestrian tragedy of Jack’s downward spiral as he was with creating an archetypal meditation on isolation, evil, and the fragility of our rational humanity.

PICTURED: MONSTER MASH PARTICIPANT. NOT PICTURED: DIGNITY.

PICTURED: MONSTER MASH PARTICIPANT. NOT PICTURED: DIGNITY.

So Kubrick’s film featured an elegant hedge maze (shades of Theseus and the minotaur!) in place of King’s roving hedge animals (which looked painfully ridiculous in the mini-series when they began walking around like green CGI Scooby-Doos). Kubrick’s film kept aspects of the hotel’s history ambiguous (the woman in the bathtub, the blow job furries) to mirror the confusion and dislocation of the characters, while King drops a pallet-load of exposition about all the horrible things that happened at the Overlook in pretty much the first ten minutes of his adaptation. Kubrick’s film had those creepy twins, King’s had a hose with CGI teeth. Kubrick’s film has Danny talking to the “imaginary” Tony using nothing but his own croaking voice and a bent finger, King’s shows Tony in all his nerdy, floating, special-effect-y glory. Kubrick’s film keeps apparitions to a minimum, making them super-effective and frighteningly real when they do appear. King, meanwhile, populates the Overlook with hundreds of partying guests who appear and disappear in tendrils of smoke, and some of whom are afflicted with tragically bad “ghost” makeup. Kubrick’s film ends with Jack simply freezing to death in the middle of the maze, and the Overlook enduring with Jack’s unredeemed spirit trapped there for eternity, a testament to the fact that evil never dies. King’s film ends with Jack fighting two laughably bumbling spirits for control of the boiler’s vent pipe (and oh, that trite “boiling over/letting off steam” metaphor is hurting me right in my literary gland), then letting the whole hotel blow up with him inside it in a silly, unnecessary “redemption.”

IT'S LIKE AN ARBOREAL JURASSIC PARK ALL UP IN HERE.

IT’S LIKE AN ARBOREAL JURASSIC PARK ALL UP IN HERE.

'SUP, DANNY? REMEMBER TO WATCH FOR SLOW CHILDREN. OH, AND DON'T GO TO THE OVERLOOK BECAUSE IT'S FILLED WITH MURDER-GHOSTS. PEACE OUT. *WHOOSH*

‘SUP, DANNY? REMEMBER TO WATCH FOR SLOW CHILDREN. OH, AND DON’T GO TO THE OVERLOOK BECAUSE IT’S FILLED WITH MURDER-GHOSTS. PEACE OUT. *WHOOSH*

At every turn, King chose to portray in his film the story exactly as he had originally written it, and at every turn, this was shown to be a mistake of plodding literalism over filmic mythmaking. King’s only sop to the novel I actually kind of liked was the fact that, as in the book, Halloran didn’t get killed at the end. I actually understand (and even agree with) the reasons Kubrick chose to kill off Halloran immediately after he arrived at the Overlook; after all, it showed that even despite Halloran’s own supernatural gifts and his tireless race to rescue Danny and Wendy, the evil of the hotel was just too powerful for him. It was still kind of a bummer, though. So yay for Halloran not dying.

I will say that the acting was actually decent for this type of thing, by which I mean, it wasn’t awful, but it was okay in a TV-movie sort of way. I didn’t get the sense that these were real people the way I did in Kubrick’s version; say what you will about Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (and I happened to think the casting was pretty spot-on), but they played those roles with conviction, son. The little boy who played Danny in King’s version had a very distracting mouth that he never seemed to be able to close and he always talked like he had a sinus infection, but I’m not gonna pick on a kid for shit he probably can’t help. He was fine, even though I didn’t believe him as a real character either, mostly because of his oddly stilted dialogue.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH MY MOUTH, YOU MEAN LADY?!?

WHAT’S WRONG WITH MY MOUTH, YOU MEAN LADY?!?

Which brings me to another of the film’s glaring weaknesses: THAT dialogue, because of course you knew I would come to that. King, even in his books, is actually fairly adept at writing relatable characters, but he does have a well-documented habit of putting weird regionalisms and repeated “catchphrases” into the mouths of his protagonists. I can forgive this in his novels, as it’s usually not frequent enough to be grating; even though I don’t know a single person who talks like a Stephen King character in real life, on the page it’s an acceptable aspect of the unique world King has created with his stories. Hearing these “cute” verbal touchstones spoken aloud many, many times over the course of a mere six hours, however, is quite another matter. I swear I thought I was going to strain something from wincing so hard in empathetic embarrassment with Steven Weber as he had to repeatedly refer to Danny as a “pup” and incessantly scream at him to “take his medicine.” Over and over and over again. And that whole “kissing/missing” thing was so egregious that I almost felt like King was trying with all his might to forcefully wedge a catchphrase into the public consciousness so he could sell it on T-shirts or something. In that way it was kind of like the “Bazinga!” of its day, if you catch my meaning.

I WILL NOW GO TOTALLY META AND LET SHELDON COOPER HIMSELF ATTEMPT TO CLEANSE THAT ANALOGY FROM YOUR MEMORY.

I WILL NOW GO TOTALLY META AND LET SHELDON COOPER HIMSELF ATTEMPT TO CLEANSE THAT ANALOGY FROM YOUR MEMORY.

And then there was that epilogue, which as far as I can remember did not appear in the novel (and please correct me if I’m wrong). Ten years later, Wendy and Halloran are watching Danny graduating from high school, and we can see that (surprise), the grown-up Danny is actually the previously floating but now sadly earthbound Tony. As Danny collects his diploma, he sees his father standing there, and Jack repeats that horrible “kissing/missing” line and then they blow a kiss to each other in what is probably the creepiest and most unrealistic father-son moment ever captured on film. Yeesh.

Look, I understand that The Shining was a very personal story for King, based as it was on many of his own struggles with alcoholism, and I can even see why, when he made the film after having been sober for so long, he’d want to add in that little “hooray for redemption” fillip at the end there, as if to say, “See, the alcohol made us both monsters but we came through it and made everything okay and we’re still good guys, even if it’s only in the Jedi afterlife like Jack here.” I get that. But keep it out of your movies, man (and your books, wherever possible). It’s self-indulgent, sappy, and frankly sort of tawdry, the kind of ending I’d expect to see in a Nicholas Sparks movie or one of those Lifetime disease-of-the-week deals. Don’t cheapen what was originally a great story with manipulative mawkishness, yo.

In summation, the reason Kubrick’s adaptation is widely adored and generally considered one of the top five scariest films ever made is precisely because he restrained his emotional impulse and chose to elevate its source material to make an artistic statement. He trusted the audience to fill in their own blanks. He took what was a good story about a decent man being tragically consumed by demons, and he added layers and layers of subtext and symbolism, universalizing the story far beyond its dysfunctional family roots and turning it into a terrifying, complex fable that can be (and has been) interpreted in myriad ways. King’s 1997 adaptation, by contrast, simply took what was on the page and slapped it on the screen in an ordinary way, more or less word-for-word, thereby draining the narrative of any vitality or visual impact. It left no room for the viewer; everything was painfully laid out in front of you and over-explained to the rafters. An argument could be made that it is theoretically possible to craft a more faithful adaptation of King’s novel that is still a fantastic film, but unfortunately, this mini-series isn’t it.

THAT'S IT, I'M AUDI. LATER, BITCHES.

THAT’S IT, I’M AUDI. LATER, BITCHES.