Category Archives: Horror Films

Halloween Horror Recommendations

In addition to my focus on feminist horror films for my 31 Days of Horror film watching (which you can find here), I thought I’d offer some other recommendations in honor of the best month of the year, October, and my favorite holiday, Halloween. October is the month when everyone is a horror fan (for some of us it’s a year-round thing). If you’re looking for some must read or watch, check out the list below. (Note: None of the films I’m featuring in my Feminist Horror #31DaysOfHorror will be on the below list.)

First, I’d be a bad scholar if I didn’t recommend my own book, so check out Gender in the Vampire Narrative (2016) edited by U. Melissa Anyiwo and me.

To Read
Non-Fiction

Histories of Haunts and Halloween

Fiction, Comics, and Graphic Novels

To Watch
Must Watch Contemporary Horror Films

  • Get Out (2017, director Jordan Peele), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu
  • Train to Busan (2016, director Sang-ho Yeon), available on Netflix
  • The Devil’s Candy (2015, director Sean Byrne), available on Netflix
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016, director André Øvredal), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu
  • The Purge: Election Year (2016, director James DeMonaco), I would recommend the entire series but Election Year was particularly poignant in light of our current political climate, available to rent on Amazon and Vudu
  • The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), director Adam Robitel), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu
  • The Innkeepers (2012, director Ti West), available on Amazon Prime and Shudder
  • Stake Land (2010, director Jim Mickle), available on Netflix

Must Watch Classic Horror Films

31 Days of Feminist Horror

It’s that time of the year…my favorite month…my favorite holiday. Happy Samhain month everyone!  It means #31daysofHalloween. As a horror film scholar, it also means #31DaysofHorror, which is a yearly challenge to watch a horror film a day.  This year I’m doing 31 horror films but with my twist: 31 feminist horror films.  In brief, feminist horror films examine elements of gender and sexuality and also explore the cultural systems that build and buttress those gender and sexual social boundaries. (Want a longer explanation of feminist horror full with specific film analysis. Well it’s coming soon in the form of my dissertation. Or you can check out my slightly longer explanation here.)

The one very practical criteria for my viewing list was that I had to have easy access to the film, which means it is either streaming somewhere that I subscribe to or I own a copy of the film. Most of the films on the list are full-length feature films, but a few are short films by some great indie filmmakers.  Pre-warning though, a couple I haven’t seen before, but they were recommended as feminist horror films that I might like.

  1. XX (Anthology directors: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, 2017), if you’d like to read my initial reaction you can find it here, available on Netflix.
  2. Dead Hooker in a Trunk (Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2009), available on Hulu.
  3. The Babadook (Director Jennifer Kent, 2014), for more analysis on this film from me, you can find it here, available on Netflix
  4. Venefica (Director Maria Wilson, 2016), available on Shudder.
  5. Jennifer’s Body (Director Karyn Kusama, 2009), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu.
  6. Slumber Party Massacre (Director Amy Holden Jones, 1982), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  7. Raw (Director Julia Ducournau, 2016), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu.
  8. We Need to Talk about Kevin (Director Lynne Ramsay, 2011), available on Netflix and Shudder.
  9. The Witch (Director Robert Eggers, 2015), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  10. The Countess (Director Julie Delpy, 2009), if you are interested in in-depth analysis of this film, see my chapter in Gender in the Vampire Narrativenot currently available to stream.
  11. Honeymoon (Director Leigh Janiak, 2014), available on Netflix.
  12. Prevenge (Director Alice Lowe, 2016), available on Shudder.
  13. Dark Touch (Director Marina de Van, 2013), available on Shudder.
  14. The Midnight Swim (Director Sarah Adina Smith, 2014), available on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Shudder.
  15. Office Killer (Director Cindy Sherman, 1997), not currently available to stream.
  16. Byzantium (Director Neil Jordan, 2012), if you are interested in in-depth analysis of this film, see my chapter in Gender in the Vampire Narrativeavailable on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu.
  17. Blood Hunters (Director Tricia Lee, 2016), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  18. The Love Witch (Director Anna Biller, 2016), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  19. Chained (Director Jennifer Lynch, 2012), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu.
  20. Scream (Director Wes Craven, 1996), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  21. The Captured Bird (Director Jovanka Vuckovic, 2012), available on Vimeo.
  22. Consummé (Director Catherine Fordham, 2015)
  23. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Director Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), available to rent on Amazon and Vudu.
  24. Eve’s Bayou (Director Kasi Lemmons, 1997), available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.
  25. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Director Fran Rubel Kuzui, 1992), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  26. The Invitation (Director Karyn Kusama, 2015), available on Netflix.
  27. The Stylist (Director Jill Gevargizian, 2016), available on Shudder.
  28. The Girl with All the Gifts (Director Colm McCarthy, 2016), available on Amazon Prime Video.
  29. Soulmate (Director Axelle Carolyn, 2013), available on Shudder.
  30. Paralysis (Director R. Shanae Williams, 2015), available on Vimeo.
  31. American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012), for my more in-depth look see here, available to rent on Amazon.

Get Out and the Importance of Addressing Contemporary Racism

Now that I have had the opportunity to see Get Out a few times, I feel better equipped to write about it. I will begin by saying that everyone should see this film. (Watch the trailer.) It is an incredibly important commentary on contemporary racism in the United States and it does this through wit, compassion, humor, and a refusal to look away. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, likely best known for his comedy work on Key and Peele, Get Out is a horror film that taps into the psychological thriller/horror genre traditions but does so with some blurring into the realm of comedy. Peele worked with the horror juggernaut Blumhouse Productions. The performances of the actors are truly sublime, especially Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington (our protagonist), Betty Gabriel as Georgina, Lakeith Standfield as Andrew Logan King, and Milton “Lil Rel” Howery as Rod Williams. Get Out has exceeded the $100 million mark, which is brilliant given its production budget was $5 million. This film has had me thinking about it from the first trailer I saw and now having seen it a few times I’m thinking about it even more.

I do want to address the folks who are insisting that this film is a thriller, which is in part the distribution company’s marketing choices (I’m looking at you Universal). But this is largely because there is such a denigration and dismissal of the horror genre as a whole. This is my soapbox moment as a horror scholar, yes. Horror films are not all torture porn and gruesome deaths—though there is nothing wrong with those horror films, I know they aren’t for everyone. Horror films are complex and diverse group of genre traditions that disrupts the everyday and are recognizable as “horrifying” and relying upon physical and emotional violence (see the scholarship of Robin Means-Coleman, Kendall Phillips, and Isabel Pinedo). Additionally, the horror genre has a long history of being subversive and addressing social issues, calling attention to a myriad of cultural problems including racism and sexism.  So I’ll say even if you don’t like horror films, please give this film a chance and please don’t re-genre it as a thriller when you do.

If you have not seen this film, I implore you to go see it and to stop reading this post right now because I’m going to talk plot pieces and I don’t want to spoil the film.

Again…stop reading if you haven’t seen it because spoilers are coming.

One of the key features of the film’s address of contemporary racism is the way Rose (Allison Williams) continually dismisses and deflects Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) concerns about race and their interracial relationship. Rose speaks for Chris and places him in danger through her actions when they are interacting with a white police officer without realizing the potential for harm that her behavior establishes. She refuses to listen to his concerns about her family’s reaction to his race because her family can’t possibly be racist…they’re liberals for goodness sake…they voted for Obama and would have done so for “a third time.” I have heard people say this statement (along with I date Black people or I have a Black friend) to disavow the racism and microaggressions they are perpetuating. Rose is the epitome of the white feminist, who refuses to see the need for intersectionality or the long-term issues with racism in the feminist movement. Aisha Harris keenly points out how dangerous white womanhood continues to be in her piece “The Most Terrifying Villain in Get Out is White Womanhood.”

Get Out addresses the insidiousness of liberal racism, specifically the ways in which white liberal folks have created self-replicating racist systems that shut Black folks out of them all while espousing supposedly calls for equality. In Get Out, this takes the form of rich white people literally stealing the bodies of Black people, which the white folks seem to believe is some sort of compliment about the physical superiority of the Black body. It is Hudson wanting to co-opt Chris Black gaze (his photography skills and his “eye” for reality in his art) and supplant his white sensibility and gaze for Chris’s racialized vision (by the nature of his existence as a Black man). This enslavement of the Black body also demonstrates the way in which slavery also crushes the spirit of the individual, living in the “Sunken Place” of degradation and invisibility. In his piece “Why Get Out Is the Best Movie Ever Made about Slavery,” Steven Thrasher writes, “It shows the intimate ways whiteness uses—indeed, the ways in which whiteness needs to use and use up—Black bodies for its continued existence.”

Throughout the film, Peele uses super-focused close up shots of Black faces (only Black faces). Often, in these shots, the faces are off-center in the frame and set at angles to the lens but these extreme close ups of these Black faces center the experiences of the Black folks in the film. One of the moments I was most struck by in this film is the moment Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotizes Chris, and he is paralyzed (See below). In this moment in Missy’s study, Peele uses this close up on Chris frozen face to emphasize Chris’s humanity and Missy’s monstrosity. The only movement in the frame comes from the tears streaking down Chris’s cheeks, his eyes and mouth frozen open in fear. This is a classic horror film tactic to show terror but also the horrific nature of the monsters our hero is facing…the monster in this moment is the white woman wielding her power and training as a therapist as a weapon. Chris’s face is so compelling and Peele’s emphasis on Chris’s horror while discovering that he was right to be concerned about this visit to Rose’s family. Missy’s monstrosity, her villain status, is established while our audience identification with Chris is solidified.

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Get Out is an amazing film that reifies our need to identify and dismantle the insidious nature of contemporary racism—racism that pretends it no longer exists and/or is a “conservative” and “rural” issue. It reminds us that we live in a racist culture that white folks have a responsibility to admit, address, and disassemble. Moreover, it’s a spectacular horror film that is creepy and atmospheric.

I would encourage folks to check out the following pieces if you’re interested in reading more about this film: Graveyard Shift Sisters’ “Get Out: Crafting a Masterpiece from the Horror of Racism,” B. Willis’s “The Most Overlooked and Underrated Characters in ‘Get Out’ Are Black Women,” and Bilge Ebiri’s “Critic’s Notebook: Why ‘Get Out’ and ‘Moonlight’ Are Breakthroughs in Black Filmmaking.” Also check out the Girl’s Will Be Ghouls review of the film in Episode 23 of their podcast.

Thoughts on XX

As almost everyone knows, I have been (not-so-patiently) waiting for XX to come out for several years. The first released all-women directed horror anthology is of course something that I would be anticipating given my passion for horror films and my scholarship on feminist film. I’m going to try very hard not to spoil any of the shorts here and these are just initial cursory thoughts. The themes of social connections, particularly motherhood and family, ran throughout all of the pieces. The familial tension that runs throughout the film is palpable and speaks to the ways in which women’s storytelling often addresses the anxieties of contemporary women attempting to deal with struggle between feminism and conservative American social norms.

First, I do think everyone should see this film for several reasons, including of course that it is the first all-women directed horror anthology but also because there is some really great camera work and story-telling in parts. There were some very strong cinematographic moments, specifically in Benjamin and Kusama’s shorts. I know that some folks are expressing disappointment in the film. Unlike most horror anthologies, XX did not have a broader narrative tying the pieces together, being drawn together only by thematic similarities. The acting in all of the pieces was excellent overall.

As with all anthologies, some of the vignettes were stronger than others, with my favorites being Vuckovic and Kusama’s. I felt the mix of humor and exasperation in Clark’s piece was fun and interesting, but the piece suffered a bit from lack of overall narrative explanation, which is also my critique of Benjamin’s piece. Both Clark and Benjamin’s have a great deal of potential, though they needed more time and exploration. Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” was the only film the invoked the horror trope of the monster, which led to some amazing creature effects. It is the short though that left me most perplexed because it was the least fleshed out narrative, with a lot of narrative holes. Vuckovic’s “The Box” was quiet and menacing, a type of familial drama that feels simultaneously real and horrific. In this short, the not-knowing heightens the fear for the audience. Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” was a beautiful vignette of a mother’s battle to save her son; at moments subtle and at others overtly questioning the idea of nature and nurture. Finally, Sofia Carrillo’s animation for the credit sequence and the intertitles was darkly fascinating.

Since I just re-read Isabel Pinedo’s Recreational Terror, I was also struck by how much these shorts felt like the post-modern horror films Pindeo discusses, particularly in her assertion that they resist narrative closure. Three of the four pieces in XX do not come to any true type of narrative conclusion—having somewhat open-ended constructions—leaving the audience to ponder what comes next for the characters. While I can see why some people were left unimpressed with the film, the film offered a good foray into feminist horror and to the more subdued horror that is more cerebral and emotional than shocking and terror-fueled. I hope to see additionally feature length films by these directors, which would offer them the ability to articulate more fully constructed narratives.

I do wish that there had been a more concerted effort to include more women techs and behind camera roles in the making of the film. I understand that the state of filmmaking is dismal for women producers, directors, cinematographers (the exception is Tarin Anderson, who did work on “The Birthday Cake” and “Don’t Fall”), and such, but I would have liked to have seen more women behind the scene and more diversity overall. The best part of this film in many ways is the culturally impact of having these strong women directors talking to the media and horror fans about the state of horror but also the representation of women directors in Hollywood and beyond.

I would very much recommend that folks watch XX, but also go look at Vuckovic’s The Captured Bird (which I love and regularly teach) and Kusama’s The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body.  I also liked Benjamin’s Southbound piece “Siren.”

What is Feminist Horror?

On February 2, 2017, I gave a brief lecture and held a discussion with 25 students, faculty, and staff at Indiana State University on the question of What is Feminist Horror in honor of Women in Horror Month. As many of you know, horror films are one of my passions and one of the chapters of my dissertation is on this topic of feminist horror films.

I covered a brief definition of the horror genre as well as the idea of women in horror films before diving into discussing feminist film generally and feminist films specifically.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of a challenge with technology for podcasting that day, but I recovered my notes in the below video for anyone interested. I do apologize for the poor image quality.

Historical Research and a Creepy Edge

I’ve been looking forward to The Witch, since the moment it premiered at Sundance in 2015.  That’s when the buzz began in horror movie circles for this film.  As the date of the wide-theatrical release grew closer, the anticipation only increased.  This feeling grew at an exponential rate this week because the internet seemed to begin losing its mind about this movie, for instance Stephen King’s tweet that it “scared the hell out of [him]” and was “visceral.” I was all the more eager to see it–to the point where I worked a full-day, taught an hour-and-a-half class, and then went to see it. (Do I get horror fan dedication points for this?) [This post shall remain as spoiler-free as possible, but as always, readers beware.]

Set in 1603 American colonies, the film follows a family’s self-imposed exile to the untamed wilds outside of their settlement due to a disagreement between the family patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson),  and the plantation’s religious elders/church doctrine.  As the family tries to establish themselves alone, they are beset with misfortune, even though their devotion to their faith is clear and present throughout the film.

First, the cast of this film was absolutely fantastic.  Ineson’s portrayal of William exuded a morass of failure, doubt, and pride that mirrored the tone of the film.  Kate Dickie’s Katherine was flawless in her devoutness, especially as she and the film descend a bit into madness. Anna Taylor-Joy as Thomasin walked the line throughout the film of innocence and temptation, showing the audience just how dangerous that line is particularly in an esoteric life devoid of joy and playfulness.  Harvey Scrimshaw was phenomenal as Caleb, the oldest of son and younger brother to Thomasin, and his interaction with Anna Taylor-Joy showed depth and compassion.  He also had one of the most difficult scenes to act in the film, in my opinion, and did so with a compelling screen presence.  Also the two little ones, playing twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), were great and played annoying younger siblings quite well.

What was most impressive was the utterly mind-blowing attention to detail and historical research so prominently displayed in the film.  It was clearly heavily embedded in a desire to present a narrative that was based in historical documents and through that research demonstrate how frightening our history truly is even on its surface.  As an audience member, I tend to eschew simple distillations of the image of witch as shortcut for evil or Satan worshipper.  This stereotype and trope typically raises my ire and turns me off.  Here, though, writer and director Robert Eggers establishes not the normal witch = evil reductive plot.  Instead, this film demonstrates the fear that the idea of witchcraft evoked in the cultural imagination of the historical period in which it is set, showing the idea of the witch as a product of religious zeal and isolation.  Whether real phenomenon or product of cultural imagination (or economic opportunists), the [Satanic] witch was both feared and reviled as harbingers of destruction.

Eggers’s screenplay is subtle in its creepiness. My one issue was that I just didn’t find it scary…not at all.  Eggers creates tension and plot climaxes throughout the film, and Mark Korven’s music built that tension in spectacular and creepy ways, particularly with his discordant sounds. Even Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography continually underscores the ominous feel of this film.  It just did not frighten me at all, so sadly I must disagree with Stephen King on that one. The film is immensely watchable though, and I do recommend it.  Check out the trailer on YouTube and check out the film in theatres.

It Follows and Issues of Consent

I recently had the opportunity to see David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and thoughts have been circling at the back of my mind since then about what I thought of the film. The truth is that I’m conflicted. I loved the aesthetic of the film, which was a kick back to the amazing horror films of the 1980s. The score was great, and the cinematography was pretty fabulous. But where I’m stuck is in the sexual politics of it. I’ve been reading about this film for months and have been waiting for it to come out. People keep touting is progressive sexual critique and ideology—or at least that’s how I read a lot of the reviews. That’s just not the film as I saw it. Now I’m not going to argue that it’s regressive sexual politics either. It’s just that I’m quite conflicted about how I feel about the film.

Here’s the premise: a college student, Jay Height (played by Maika Monroe) decides to have sex with a guy she’s been dating, Hugh (Jake Weary). He infects her with the disease that means she will be stalked and gruesomely murdered by some shape-shifting thing that no one else can see. Well unless she passes it on to someone else and that person passes it on and so on.

A part of this film is a progressive critique of normative ideas about sexuality, especially female sexuality. Jay’s friends do not engage in slut shaming or victim blaming about her sexual encounter with Hugh. Sexual relationships are portrayed as normal aspects of dating and adulthood. Jay openly discusses having had sex previously. It is this openness to sexual activity that has Ms. Magazine blogger, Natalie Wilson, writing that it is a “Horror Film that Doesn’t Blame the Victim for Having Sex.” 

Here’s my issue though it’s the film’s insistence (and some blogger/reviewers, such as Wilson) that the sex in the film is all consensual. After Hugh and Jay have their seemingly consensual sex in the backseat of his car in an abandoned factory parking lot, Hugh knocks her out with a rag over her face. She wakes up tied to a wheelchair, while he explains the “disease” of the “it” that will follow her and kill her. Finally he drops her off in the street outside of her home with her hands still bound and in only her undergarments. When she’s being interviewed by a police officer, he asks, “it was consensual” (meaning the sex). To which, Jaye answers yes it was consensual.   But I have a major problem with this definition (portrayal) of consent here. Jay does not consent to having a disease passed on to her. One that Hugh knows he’s infected with and one he knowingly passes on to her. Her only recourse is to have sex with someone else and pass it on. In this manner, she is coerced into sex with other individual(s). It’s here that these sexual politics becomes a bit regressive around women’s sexuality and issues of consent.

While this film had a lot of things going right with it, I can’t ignore the issues of consent playing out within the narrative. I think it’s worth watching. It would be great to have some conversations about the film specifically but also the issues of sexuality and consent.

So many more thoughts in my head about this film.

Here are some of the reviews about this film: Thompson on Hollywood, interview in Filmmaker Magazine, Meredith Woerner’s “How It Follows Uses Dread and Beauty,” and Jessica Kiang’s Cannes Review.