Ana Lily Amirpour Bends Horror Genre

Ana Lily Amirpour was born in England and moved to the United States when she was a kid. In Florida, Amirpour was teased for her accent, so she tried doing a couple of things to make herself more American. She started a fan club for General Zod from Superman II, which never really got off the ground, and dabbled in filmmaking with her dad’s camcorder.


Her first feature was a slumber party horror movie that she filmed when she was twelve. “The movie did have a kill scene that was pretty scary,” she says. “I showed it to my friends and their parents, and everyone jumped. I was like, ‘Ahhh!’”

Her family, though, had different plans for Amirpour. Her parents are Iranian, and Amirpour says, “Iranian parents are very, they’re like, ‘You’ll either be a doctor or a lawyer,’” she says. “I was very arty in high school and my mom was like, ‘Yeah, so you can be a plastic surgeon.’”

Instead of studying textbooks, Amirpour credits Michael Jackson’s ode to monster making to helping her with her film career. “I watched the making of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video thousands of times,” she says. “It taught me how to be an American.”

Other influences are too many to count. “I love James Dean, Die Antwoord, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Bee Gees, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Sophia Loren. I’m obsessed with this album Escape Yourself by Footprintz,” says Amirpour. And Bruce Lee. “Read Striking Thoughts, his philosophies on life and art—they’re the most gangster-ish you’ll ever read. He’s all about obstacles being in the past.” Also: “Anne Rice was my first thing. I loved—addicted loved—all of that.”

Amirpour went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and was pursued by Hollywood agents after that. But instead of doing the Hollywood thing, Amirpour took a sabbatical in Germany, where she got her head together. “I ended not making those [Hollywood] films, and I am so glad. They were not my pure soul matter. In Germany, I got to sit and think about the shit that I love,” says Amirpour. “I thought, I’m going to write something where everything people say and do turns me on.”

The idea for her successful first feature A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night came to Amirpour when she was directing a film short and an extra walked through the set wearing a chador. To Amirpour, it looked like a bat and she asked to try it on. That’s when she thought “Iranian vampire,” which became the core of her movie. She started using Indiegogo to crowdfund her Iranian vampire film and raised $57,000 before SpectreVision stepped in as a producer. “A vampire is so many things: serial killer, a romantic, a historian, a drug addict—they’re sort of all these things in one,” says Amirpour, who released a comic after the success of her first film.



“It’s a mash-up, but it becomes really liberating, because as a kid growing up I wanted to be American, like my white American friends, but I am Iranian and my culture is very fixed and strong and it’s been an overwhelming presence in my life,” says Amirpour about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which is told in Farsi. “How do you explain that is part of who you are?”


Another reason Amirpour likes vampires is because she fears death. “I hate it, I don’t want to do it,” says Amirpour. “I also don’t like old. I don’t care how many fuckin’ Ansel Adams photos you take of old people and try to tell me it’s beautiful. It smells bad and shit’s failing. You’re rotting inside yourself, inside your own body. That’s what it is, in my opinion.”


Amirpour is sure, though, that a cure lies just around the corner. “I’m extremely greedy about life. In fifteen years, there will be a nano-shot where you can live forever. I’m sure of it. I don’t think it’ll be FDA-approved and I don’t think it’ll be given to everybody. But I would fucking take it in a second,” she says.

In the meantime, she’s working on her second horror feature, which she plans to debut later in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival: The Bad Batch. Amirpour says, “The Bad Batch is a post-apocalyptic desert cannibal love story.” Originally she wanted Jennifer Lawrence to star in her movie as bait for cannibals. “She’s so fucking dope,” Amirpour says, “she’s so gangster.” But instead Suki Waterhouse ended up being cast as her leading lady.


Ana Lily Amirpour

Jennifer Kent Makes Female Horror the Scariest

Jennifer Kent has been acting since her teens, but nobody had really heard of the Australian writer, actress, and director until she burst onto the scene with her truly frightening horror indie The Babadook. New Yorker critic Anthony Lane was so impressed by her debut that he said, “Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors. The law would restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition.”

Funny enough, when Kent started out in her career, she didn’t see directing as an option open to her. “I wrote, directed, and acted in my own stories as a child. But when it came time to study in my late teens, I chose acting. I wasn’t really aware at that stage that women could direct films. After a few years of professional acting, I naturally gravitated toward writing and directing,” says Kent.


Kent had written a few screenplays, but she was not able to direct those because the scope was so big and she wasn’t able to secure the budget for it. “I’d been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially,” says Kent.

“So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate, and this idea…The idea of facing your shadow side is my myth, something I think is really important in life. You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff, and that’s what all addiction is about. People become alcoholics or drug addicts because they can’t face something inside.”

Kent was able to get the last bit of funding for her movie with a Kickstarter campaign. She said, “Kickstarter was incredible in that they gave us that house. Without Kickstarter, we’d have a pretty flimsy-looking set. The construction of the house was meticulously planned. It had real floorboards and was very large. All of that had to be created. The money went to that construction and we would have been lost without it.”


While writing The Babadook, Kent explored what makes a mother turn into a monster, not the nurturing ideal of motherhood usually portrayed, and she realized that few movies dealt with this subject. “Apart from We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can’t easily think of other examples [that address the subject] and it’s the great unspoken thing. We’re all, as women, educated and conditioned to think that motherhood is an easy thing that just happens. But it’s not always the case,” says Kent.

“I wanted to show a real woman who was drowning in that environment. I thought that maybe I would be criticized by women, by mothers, because I’m not a mother. The opposite has happened; I’ve experienced a collective sigh of relief that women are seeing a mother up there that’s human. Sure, it’s an extreme situation, but what I realize is that a lot of women have felt those feelings that Amelia [protagonist of The Babadook] goes through at some point along the way.”

Kent’s approach to directing The Babadook was to storyboard everything like legendary horror director Alfred Hitchcock. “Every scene had a certain visual map. And I did storyboard—I did very bad stick drawings—but I always came in with a sense of how the world had to look,” says Kent. “It starts very centered, everything is framed—very centered and composed—and as the film goes on, people’s heads start to drift to other sides of the frames, and things start to become more discordant visually.”


A mysterious book, The Babadook, is the entryway for the monster in the movie, which harkens back to graphic stories children were told as warnings, such as in Grimm’s fairy tales. “I think some fairy tales are designed to keep kids in line and make them stay safe, and there are the other ones, the ones I’m attracted to, that point out the chaos of life to kids. Because it’s not perfect. It’s not always neatly tied up. I think that’s what horror can do as well. It can actually be a refreshing way to look at the world, when it’s not about perfection,” says Kent.

While directing the movie, Kent ran into snobbery from others when she said it was a horror film. “People would be very excited to hear that I was directing. Then when I described it as a horror film, I may as well have said I was directing a porno. They were like, Oh, that’s not a real film. It’s disgusting. And also, why would a woman want to direct that kind of stuff?” says Kent.

“People very easily forget films like The Shining and Let the Right One In, and going back further, Les Diaboliques and Eyes Without a Face. All these films that have a poetry to them, and something deeper going on.”



Since her success with The Babadook, Kent is fielding a lot of offers for directing. She says, “I’m reading a lot of scripts at the moment, and they’re all from the male perspective. Most are written by men. That’s where I think it’s difficult. It’s difficult to get the stories through that give a female perspective. That’s why I’m committed to writing more stories from my perspective. We just need more balance.”

The next project she has coming up is a film based on a U.S. true-crime story that happened in 1892 when two women fell in love—nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell and seventeen-year-old Freda Ward. Mitchell decided to dress and pass as a man in order to marry Ward, but their love letters were discovered and the two were forbidden from seeing each other.

Ward accepted this in a cavalier manner that crushed Mitchell, and so she slashed Ward’s throat with her father’s razor. During a trial in Memphis, Tennessee, Mitchell was declared insane and sent to an asylum. She died there a few years later under mysterious circumstances. The film is based on the book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis and has been likened to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.


Jennifer Kent’s Top Ten List of Horror Films

  1. Black Sabbath (1963)
  2. Georges Méliès Shorts / La Maison Ensorcelée (1908)
  3. The Tenant (1976)
  4. Lost Highway (1997)
  5. The Amityville Horror (1979)
  6. Halloween (1978)
  7. Vampyr (1932)
  8. Black Swan (2010)
  9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
  10. The Innocents (1961)



Bring on Women in Horror Month 2016

I went to my first horror convention in 2007, covering it for a French magazine that I freelanced for at the time, and the event they really wanted me to focus on was a horror indie that would show in the evening. I was at the con the entire day, and though it was male dominated, I didn’t feel uncomfortable until it came time for me to do my job and watch the film. Right then, just as the lights went out, a guy who had been roving up and down the aisles with a walkie-talkie took a seat next to me, saying, “I’ve seen you sitting here all day, and you’re kind of cute.”


He was so close that I could smell the peanut butter on his breath, but I didn’t respond. I stared straight ahead, trying to get the gist of the story line and take notes, which miffed him, making him say next, “Now, I just want to fuck with you.”


I had to get up and move away from him, but the harassment threw me, and I was off my game for the rest of the night. This con introduction came to color my experiences in the horror industry, where I wasn’t taken as seriously as my male colleagues. Once I piped up during a convention panel on horror comics, wanting to talk about Alan Moore and his revolutionary work on Swamp Thing and then perhaps segue to the wonderful work being done by horror manga writers and artists, but I was shut down and told to “go read his work and then report back.” I’ve been reading his work since I was twelve.


I struggled as the only woman in a theater full of men viewing Gary Sherman’s 39: A Film by Carroll McKane (2006) movie and had to leave the Q-and-A afterward, as serial killer specialists argued about how there had never been a female serial killer and Aileen Wuornos didn’t count.


So I was thrilled when Women in Horror Month began, where the entire month of February celebrates females working in the horror industry. To me, it’s obvious that there’s a problem—so often I open a horror short story collection and there are only men listed in the table of contents, or maybe a token woman. Caitlín R. Kiernan has shared, “It is genuinely frustrating—and somewhat bizarre and also embarrassing—how often I’ve found myself the only female author in a collection. (Note: Once would have been too often.)”



With my writers’ group and others, though, I’ve heard the argument, “I don’t think we should have to divide things according to gender.” And in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to, but the division is going on now, and I so want to be represented by fair numbers and stories. I want everybody to be represented in horror, to be able to find that one spooky story that speaks to them and scares the daylights out of them. But until that happens, we need to put in the hard work to get there, and part of that is reminding people that women write horror, very good horror.


I was part of New York Comic Con last year, after a several-year absence, and right before the attendees came in, I immediately got anxious, ready to be challenged on my horror cred. But things had loosened up since my last con. While behind the table for the Horror Writers Association, I saw both female and male faces, in pretty equal proportions, looking for a good scary story. But unfortunately most of what was represented on the table were male stories. When women and girls turned away, not inspired by the choices, I tried to give them recommendations of other authors that they could try. But what I really wished for was that I had those stories to give them, stories about girls who look like them and are totally badass, slaying the monsters or even being them. The audience is definitely there; now we need to give them the books.


Listen to Fareena Samad tell you about the stories she cares about, and let’s try and get some more into her hands.


It Follows Freshens Up Horror with Homage to ’80s

It Follows reminded me very much of ’80s horror movies, from the neon colors to the soundtrack that sounded eerily like Tangerine Dream. I think what I saw referenced most often was Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series, where teenagers are menaced by Freddy Krueger, the boogeyman in their dreams. It Follows opens with a damsel in distress running down the street in just a T-shirt and high heels, obviously post-coitus, trying to escape from an unknown something. She’s shown being menaced, leaving a voicemail for her dad, and then the next shot shows her in the daytime ripped to pieces. Right away it seems that the beautiful people are under attack in It Follows with ladies first.

Jay, the main character of the movie, is played by Maika Monroe, who spends a lot of time running around in underwear or swimsuits. When a person’s almost naked, they’re at their most vulnerable, and that’s what this movie plays on, the sexploitation of young women and what they can do with it. Jay is close with her sister Kelly and a group of neighborhood friends: Yara, the brainy one, who’s gaining great insight from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which she reads throughout most of the movie, and Paul, the sisters’ guy friend who kissed them both when they were younger and still pines for Jay.


The sisters live a simple life in a suburban home, with Jay attending college classes and her younger sister working at an ice cream store. In the backyard is an aboveground pool with five-foot-tall blue plastic walls, what I’ve always seen as a symbol of lower middle class striving for something better. Jay loves the pool, to the delight of the neighborhood boys who are in lust for this dream girl, and many of the shots in the movie are from Jay’s point of view there while looking up into the open sky crabbed with a few tree branches.

She goes on a date with a guy she likes but doesn’t know very well yet. The date starts off normally, but when they go to see a movie that’s where things start to go off-kilter. While playing a game involving the people around them, Hugh, her date, is freaked out that Jay can’t see what’s clear as day to him. He gets so upset by this that they have to leave the movie theater. Later, Jay and Hugh take it to the next level and have backseat car sex and Hugh kidnaps her, bringing Jay to an abandoned parking garage where he schools her on what will happen next in a truly terrifying scene.


Hugh’s got a terrible curse where he sees people that aren’t there—people whom he seems to love mostly—and they’re going to kill him unless he gets rid of “it” by having sex with another person and passing the curse on to them. Traumatized, Jay isn’t sure what he means after she’s returned home, abandoned at her house like a date rape victim. An STD? But soon after she starts seeing people who aren’t there, such as an old woman with knee and ankle braces who stalks her through her school, a figure that only Jay can see and react to while her behavior strikes others as that of a crazy person. This reminded me again of some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, when characters are locked in a nightmare but nobody else can see what they are battling, just their bizarre actions. There’s even a Johnny Depp lookalike, Greg (played by Daniel Zovatto), whose family looks down on Jay’s, similar to the first installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

The movie’s scares come from not knowing who is after the infected. Sometimes a person is there and everybody can see them, or it morphs into one of the group of friends and it’s hard to tell the real apart from the threatening.

I like that the movie plays with the trope of virgins being the survivors in a horror movie, while those who have sex are goners. I think I first saw this exploited in another Wes Craven film, Scream, which had those candy colors in it as well. In It Follows, the virgins are safe unless they get caught in the crossfire of the sexually active who are duking it out with the menacing spirits out to get them.

The premise gets muddy, though, and I found myself puzzling about how the curse works during the last part of the movie rather than watching it. Hugh, the last victim who infects Jay, says that there is a chain that can’t be broken or he’ll be gone, too, but the origin is never revealed. There’s no Krueger or Samara of the Ring series to explain the how and why of the curse. It’s also hard to believe that young adults are going to explain the rules of the sex curse to their hookups when they don’t really know them, either. But maybe that’s playing on certain sexual myths that I’ve heard directly from guys’ mouths in the past, like you can’t pregnant when you’re having your period or a woman’s fertility shuts down when she’s raped.


Not knowing where the curse is coming from just left me with a lot of questions, and then some of the original “rules” are broken. I like that the women in horror cliché is turned upside-down and the ladies in their skimpy outfits actually hold the position of real power in the story. As the lovely Jay is told by her infector, “It should be easy for you. You’re a girl.” But I still want to know the how’s and why’s of the curse, even if this is a horror movie where not everything has to make sense.

I’ve already looked up the plotline of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on Wikipedia to see if there’s a clue there, since Yara’s reading it obsessively on her clamshell e-reader and quotes from it, but that didn’t help. And I don’t have room on my reading list to fit that book in, especially if it’s not going to help me solve the mystery of the curse. I always swore I was saving the heavy-duty Russian authors for when I was near death.

Hannibal Degrades in His Earlier Years

I just finished Silence of the Lambs, a reread for me, but it was a read that came after the movie—my absolute favorite. For a long time, I thought the novel by Thomas Harris was one of those rare cases where the movie surpassed the book, but it’s probably because the movie is filtered through the female viewpoint, psychological horror where the female protagonist solves the mystery and is the hero. I enjoyed the novel, but it was nowhere near the level of the movie with its two famous portraits of evil (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb) and the two strong ladies who are determined to overcome it (Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin). The movie version condenses events, rearranges them, and makes Lecter like Jaws—a menace getting about ten minutes of actual screen time, but the one who also underpins the entire story.


Lecter’s scary, but there are so many other elements that work in the story, making it transcend the horror genre. One of the biggies are strong female characters who aren’t accessories for men. Clarice Starling is presented in both the book and movie as a steely recruit for the FBI. She’s ambitious but also vulnerable because of her inexperience and a difficult past. Foster says that Clarice Starling is still the best role she’s ever had and that’s something, coming from a woman who’s spent her whole life in the film industry. In the book, Starling is what puts the plot into motion after spurning the advances of Dr. Chilton, the man in charge of Hannibal Lecter. Harris captures Starling’s quick perceptions but also her awareness of herself as a woman and how she can use that in her career:

“She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them—she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life—and switchblade-quick she knew not to spare him, not to talk on or look away. She stared into his face, and with the smallest tilt of her head, she gave him her good looks and bored her knowledge in, speared him with it, knowing he couldn’t stand for the conversation to go on.”


This is glossed over quickly in the scene where Dr. Chilton is introduced in the movie Silence of the Lambs, and instead the movie’s heart lies in the twisted mentoring relationship that exists between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter also can’t abide Chilton, who doesn’t have a medical degree and uses his proximity to the cannibal psychiatrist to further his own career (this first comes up in Red Dragon).


Recently I started watching the TV series Hannibal with my sister, and I liked the first few episodes. It was interesting to see the period of time when Hannibal was practicing as a psychiatrist and perhaps committing the first few kills that would eventually land him in Chilton’s psychiatric hospital. But now the series is really starting to piss me off because it’s screwing around with the Hannibal Lecter canon and destroying the original character that Harris built.

At first, I was annoyed because each episode dealt with a new serial killer, and I found that completely unrealistic. If a story is set in a zombie apocalypse, I expect there to be a lot of zombies. But Hannibal is set in contemporary times where there are only supposed to be about forty or so active serial killers at any time in the United States. Yet every episode I’ve watched of Hannibal features a new serial killer that the FBI and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) are dealing with. And these serial killers borrow heavily from the imagery associated with Hannibal’s later crimes; unless there is a plot twist from hell coming up, this pretty much makes Lecter look like a copycat.

What Lecter does in Silence of the Lambs.
Another serial killer's work in prequel series Hannibal.
Another serial killer’s work in prequel series Hannibal.


The series also takes the great lines from Silence of the Lambs and repurposes them for the current story, saving nothing for later. Dr. Chilton has been brought in to work with the FBI when authorities would never have dealt with this bozo in the first place, according to the original canon. A pseudo Clarice has also been produced and almost immediately catches Lecter out through his sloppiness. All of these plot lines aren’t true to the characters as I know them, and I’m just barely halfway through the first season of Hannibal. I don’t see how the series can sustain itself much longer, and I know I’ve got to quit watching these episodes because I just get madder and madder with each one, turning into one of those comic book purists.

Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris is one of those rare reclusive writers who doesn’t like to give interviews, but at some point he sold the film rights of Hannibal Lecter to Hollywood maven Dino De Laurentiss. Later, after Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Red Dragon, De Laurentiss supposedly threatened to film a prequel to Hannibal’s story with or without Harris’s help, which spurred the writer to write Hannibal Rising.


I guess that wasn’t enough background for the character because now we have Hannibal the TV series. Dino De Laurentiss died a few years ago, but I see that his wife Martha De Laurentiis is attached as executive producer to the series. I don’t know if these film rights transfer or if Harris sold them again. Either way, I hope he’s getting good money for it. A writer’s got to eat, but I really don’t care for what’s been done to his characters.

2013’s Carrie Tries a Cyber Version of Stephen King’s Story

I’ve been jonesing to see Carrie since watching the previews in the movie theater early last year. The shower room scene in Stephen King’s novel and the original movie is a classic of how mean and out of control bullying can get, but the preview showed cyberbullying being introduced in the new version, and that’s something that excited me. Bullying has evolved, like everything else with the Internet, and where a kid might once have been able to get a little peace at home after a school day of harassment, they can now be haunted in cyberspace through Twitter, Facebook, or what have you.


At this point, I don’t think there are any spoilers in Carrie. It’s a Cinderella story that the brothers Grimm would approve of. Carrie White is the daughter of single mother Margaret White, a religious fanatic who chooses to keep her daughter ignorant about the facts of life, thinking she’ll remain pure that way. Carrie gets her period while showering after gym, and her classmates throw tampons and maxipads at her, yelling for her to plug it up. With the onset of her period, Carrie rediscovers her telekinetic powers. One of the shower room bullies feels bad about her role and, as compensation, makes her boyfriend ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie accepts and sees this as her chance to be normal, making and wearing a pretty dress, dancing. Another of the bullies, though, won’t let her get away with this and hatches a plan to drench Carrie with blood onstage. She doesn’t know about Carrie’s newfound powers and what she’ll do for sweet revenge.


The original Carrie is iconic. When friends and I are feeling insecure, we’ll jeer, “They’re all going to laugh at you,” imitating Piper Laurie’s over-the-top performance as Carrie White’s mother, and laughter almost always results. But it is a different world now, and I’m okay with that line going to Julianne Moore, with a more understated tone of voice, who’s able to convey ultimate love for her daughter alongside crazy, masochistic religious beliefs. I don’t think I ever really saw that mother-daughter love in Piper Laurie’s version of Mrs. White. Carrie just seemed to serve as an audience for her ravings.


The girl picked to be Carrie in this version, Chloë Grace Moretz, is very pretty. She doesn’t have the unusual looks of Sissy Spacek (the original Carrie), which made it easy to see how such cruel taunts started, but plenty of beautiful people are bullied. I’m thinking of the stories of Phoebe Prince, who was bullied until she committed suicide, and Daisy Coleman, a popular freshman cheerleader until she accused an upperclassman of rape and eventually had her house burned down by bullies.

Moretz plays Carrie White as a sweetheart who only wants to be a good girl, and it comes across as a little wishy-washy. Spacek’s Carrie had a witchy streak at times, so the ultimate destruction at the end of the movie didn’t come off as incongruous. Where Moretz might be a little more believable, though, is as a high schooler who hasn’t hit puberty yet. She looks very young and unformed in her plaid shirt and jumper next to sophisticated classmates in full makeup and hair, toting their iPhones. And her ignorance of the changes that a girl goes through as she becomes a woman is explained away with home schooling. I don’t think anybody could have bought Carrie having no knowledge of a period without this update.


One thing I like in this movie is Judy Greer (Jawbreaker) as Ms. Desjardin. She brings a little something different to the character that King envisioned, I think, who is a former teen queen now teaching gym. Ms. Desjardin understands what motivates her students to humiliate Carrie White in the locker room because she’s closer in age to them than the rest of the teachers. And Greer brings a zany, goofball quality to the character that I haven’t seen before, making the role a surprise—one of the few in the movie. I’ve seen Brian De Palma’s Carrie so many times, that it ran like a loop in the back of my brain as I watched this recent remake of Carrie, and almost all of the performances in the 2013 movie came off as paler versions, except for the character of Ms. Desjardin.


A big part of King’s Carrie, which carried through in the original movie, is the theme of how random events can quickly accumulate and snowball into something awful. The bullying, the late period, even Carrie’s conception—these small things all build to the ultimate showdown, and each fresh piece keeps the story rolling. This version of Carrie felt choreographed to me; there was a slickness to it like a Broadway production. The brutal shower room scene is videotaped and posted online, and it’s shown again and again and again, even played on big screens when the prom queen and king are announced and the bloodbath begins. The repetition takes away from the initial cruelty, and the scene just doesn’t seem that shocking by the time Act III rolls around.

The cyberbullying that I thought would add a fresh element to the movie ends up being clunky. I have a hard time believing the big baddie Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) would be so stupid as to leave evidence of the taped shower room scene on her phone, which screws up an important plot point. (She’s supposed to be whip smart, torturing others for her own entertainment.) Also, such a contrast is set up between the tech-savvy, sophisticated high schoolers and the rube Carrie that one of the most important scenes comes off badly. Chris Hargensen’s boyfriend, Billy Nolan, is supposed to kill a pig for blood. The modern version shows Chris and Billy menacing pigs in a sty, and it comes off as silly. The characters haven’t looked or acted like farm kids through the entire story, so just when did they learn how to kill a pig? YouTube? If only that had been shown.

Flynn Gets Creepy in Dark Places

I gulped this book down in about two days, completely unprepared for it. I loved Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, such a nasty treat, and meant to read her other novels, but the wait list is long at the Brooklyn Public Library. I didn’t even know what Dark Places was about, but when I started flipping through the opening pages listing the reviews that compared it to In Cold Blood, I knew the novel had to go to the top of my book pile. In Cold Blood has to be one of the most reread novels in my house. I had to retire a copy because the cover came off and it started flaking off pages one by one.


While I don’t know much about Kansas and the area where the Clutters were killed (the murder that’s the focus of In Cold Blood), I do know Kansas City, Missouri, and the low-rent satellite communities that surround it. I did a year of high school in Grandview, Missouri, and it was terrifying. I can remember the mean poverty surrounding me in a land of plenty, and it was a marked contrast after coming back from Germany, where my father had been stationed. Flynn recreates this setting in the most creepy and delicious of ways, and I think she gets it right: “He led me around the corner and down a hallway of former offices. I crunched broken glass, peering into each room as we passed: empty, empty, a shopping cart, a careful pile of feces, the remains of an old bonfire, and then a homeless man who said Hiya! cheerfully over a forty-ounce.”

The characters populating the story are as much of a knockout as how Flynn captures the Missouri setting. Unlikely protagonist Libby Day is in a precarious position. She’s now in her early thirties, the only other survivor besides her brother of her family’s brutal murder that happened one night in January 1985. Libby’s brother was accused of murdering her two sisters and mother; only Libby survived, after running away, though she sacrificed some toes and half a finger to frostbite.

Charlize Theron will play the adult Libby in the movie version of Dark Places.

With Libby’s testimony, her brother is now serving a life sentence in prison and she has been living on money put up by strangers long ago in a fund in her name. Not having a job for most of her life, she’s burned through almost all of it, even when supplemented by a ghostwritten self-help book capitalizing on her story.

Libby has incomplete memories of the time the murders happened, but she starts thinking back on those events after a strange man approaches her, offering money for any mementos or recollections. She’s made her apartment and bed a cocoon from the rest of the world and would rather go back to that defining moment of her life and make money from it than to acquire new skills and go out into the world. Libby is still a brat as an adult, seemingly stuck at the age when tragedy struck, but she has her sweet moments, too.

Flynn is a master of suspense and skillful at balancing the two story lines of Dark Places. She alternates going between the events that built up to the multiple murder in 1985 and what is happening to the adult Libby as she starts recovering her memories of that time while going outside of her comfort zone and meeting new people. Flynn’s able to keep the tension mounting in both story lines until they meet and the mystery is revealed. The smallest details contribute to the major revelation at the end, but they’re not clumsy and never give the story away. I never saw the real story behind the multiple murder coming, yet it didn’t come off as implausible.

Still from the movie Dark Places , with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.
Still from the movie Dark Places, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the meanie.


Flynn is one of the authors that I try and press friends to read, and when my sister was looking for a good book, I insisted she read Dark Places. She couldn’t guess the ending either, and she’s usually really good at it. We have a game we play when watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU where she has to guess the perpetrator in the first five minutes, and she almost always pegs it right. Not this time.

I really think 2014 is going to be Flynn’s year. Both Gone Girl and Dark Places will appear as movies (according to IMDb), with excellent casts attached, exposing more people to her work. Now, if only I had another Flynn novel to look forward to because I’m down to the last one.

Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn

Hunger Games Catching Fire: the Marketing of a Girl

Catching Fire picks up a few months after the Hunger Games left off. Katniss and Peeta have arrived home to District 12 and now live in elegant digs compared to what they had before taking part in the Hunger Games. Peeta’s sulky because the romance he dreams of with Katniss has not taken place offscreen, and Katniss is suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. President Snow, the creepy and elegant Donald Sutherland, visits Katniss right before her Victory Tour, telling her she has to sell this romance and make it believable. Signs of dissent have spread throughout the Capitol and surrounding districts, and Snow is even seeing the results in his own household, when his granddaughter (Erica Bierman) appears at the breakfast table in Katniss’s trademark braids, telling him, “All the girls wear their hair like this.” This girl from District 12 has become a symbol of something he doesn’t want, but everybody else likes, even loves, her.


For going against the rules and inspiring others to question their drudge of a life, Katniss must be punished. And Jennifer Lawrence’s acting is a gem here, as she pretends to be a bad actress while on the Victory Tour, all hammy, SNL skit-like with eyelash batting and fake smiles, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). President Snow is not pleased with the results, and with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he decides she must be eliminated. The Quarter Quell is upon them, a special edition of the Hunger Games that comes about every twenty-five years, and the twist this year is to reap past Hunger Game winners from each district and make them repeat the games with the best of the best.

I found this installment of the movie much more emotional than the first, now that the main characters have been established and people have gotten over their Fatniss fixation. There were so many times I felt my heart in my throat, especially in the scenes with Katniss and Peeta showing real love for each other, in contrast to what they faked during the Victory Tour. Though Katniss doesn’t have the love connection with Peeta that she does with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), he is the only person who understands what happened to her during the Hunger Games. And he loves her desperately, though she doesn’t understand why.


There are very few changes between the book Catching Fire and the movie, and most are those of omission. Peeta tries to save Katniss from entering the arena again by dropping a baby bomb, which isn’t described as such in the novel but the term is adopted in the movie, and I like how parallels are drawn between our celebrity-driven culture and these bloody games. A baby bump becomes a complete game changer, and while Katniss cannot avoid the Quarter Quell, she’s able to manipulate the sympathies of viewers and possible sponsors.

The omissions, I think, help heighten the tension, so viewers aren’t bored and easily able to figure out what’s going to happen in the end. And maybe that’s good for those who have read the trilogy as background before going in to the movie, but I watched it with two who had not read the books, and they both felt like they were missing important information. Then I watched Catching Fire again with my nine-year-old niece when I was visiting for Christmas, and she needed information to process what was going on on-screen. I answered her questions in whispers, trying not to piss off the people in back of us, and when she got it, her face lit up with pure pleasure, enjoying the story of tough ladies and guys trying to make it out alive.


Afterward, she wanted to play Hunger Games, using characters from the movie Catching Fire. She didn’t want to be Katniss, who she deemed too nice. Instead, she invented her own character Catty, who had Katniss-like traits with a little bit of Johanna mean. Johanna’s mean streak intrigued her (a standout performance by Jena Malone), but my niece didn’t feel like she could act out those parts so I was assigned her character. It made me happy that instead of one girl part, my niece had several female roles to choose from—a healer, a genius, a warrior, etc.—to see what fit her personality.


Our playacting brought to mind one of the press junkets the Hunger Games cast did for the first movie. One of the questions given was which character would the other actors liked to have been, and Jennifer Lawrence mentioned how nobody ever chooses Katniss. I think it’s because we already envision ourselves as a Katniss, a hero who is brave and loyal, but we would like to try on brutishness or vulnerability, traits that aren’t usually interpreted as heroic.

Obsession Grows Tedious in Room 237

Being a Shining fan—of both the book and the movie—I was curious to see Room 237, the documentary about the many theories spawned by Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I’ve seen Kubrick’s version of The Shining more than five times—maybe even more than that—and never read too much into it. I always thought it was a damn fine movie, and I particularly liked the device of Danny’s index finger being his imaginary friend Tony (sometimes simpler is scarier) and Scatman Crothers’s performance as Dick Hallorann. After seeing the movie, I can never imagine anybody else as that character.


I’d been waiting a couple of weeks to see the movie and was grateful that the IFC Center was still showing it. After buying my ticket and entering the theater, I was thrilled to recognize it as the one where I saw Ron Perlman in The Last Winter several years before, and I remembered a nice red-and-black bathroom tucked away in the basement. I never made it down there, though, sidetracked by a display of T-shirts that at first glance appeared to be logos of heavy metal bands. Looking closer, though, the names were of arty directors in the style of heavy metal bands—there was Fassbinder, Herzog, and my personal favorite, Carpenter. I’m not sure about the trademark issues for this, but it’s a fun idea.


We went upstairs to a theater that I hadn’t been in before and waited…and waited…and waited for it to open. After being seated in the lobby for more than twenty minutes, the crowd had grown large and people actually formed a line to get into the movie theater. Reluctantly we joined them, but it didn’t make a difference as to better seating choice. The theater was full of overstuffed purple-and-white seats that were all sprung, and my chair felt like my father’s broken-down La-Z-Boy. My friends and I got four seats together, and all felt the same way about the chairs. Such a shame, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good, comfortable theater in New York.

Smart-people shorts were shown before the movie—one about politics and another about how Iraqi citizens who had risked their lives to help the U.S. armed forces during the war were now not being allowed promised refuge in the United States (as a result of their help, they were being assassinated by enemies). A woman came in late during these shorts and took the aisle seat next to our group—I knew we should have shifted over one more to close the gap. She had the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, and I didn’t think anything of it, except That should go rather quick.

The documentary Room 237 starts out strong with one man’s theory about what the Calumet baking powder means in a few scenes of The Shining, where the cans are prominently displayed. The theorists’ faces are never shown. Instead, the movie’s visuals are clips from the The Shining that have been slowed down to a crawl so each and every detail of a scene can be analyzed; some behind-the-scenes footage and stills of the movie are also shown. This part I really enjoyed, as I could appreciate how much really goes into building a scene. It was mesmerizing to see Jack Nicholson psyching himself up for his famous ax-wielding scene off camera and almost whacking one of the film crew in the head, and there are so many in-jokes in The Shining that I had never picked up on before because the images fly by so fast.


The faceless theorists of Room 237 started to get on my nerves, though. A speaker starts out with a theory on the movie—some are very strong and hold up—but then after you’ve started down the path with them, quite a few veer off into Crazytown. It reminded me of being in a bar, where you meet somebody for the first time and think, Wow, this guy seems really nice and smart, but then the conversation takes a turn and you realize the person is batshit crazy. The problem becomes how do you extricate yourself from this conversation?

With Room 237, I had paid $13 to be part of these conversations, so I was damned if I was walking out. I tried to tune out the annoying theorists, but then I ended up picking up on the peccadilloes of audience members around me. Like the woman with the smallest bag of popcorn in the world, which she made last for forty-five minutes by eating it kernel by kernel, all noisy, openmouthed chewing. After that, she took out her iPhone and made Facebook status updates before leaving, bored. Not to worry, a guy behind us started up being annoying once she left, with big, rumbling snores.

I think my threshold was very low because the theorists were annoying me, and I didn’t feel like I could trust any of them, and that in turn dialed up the annoying quirks that I can usually tune out.

Evil Dead Reboot: Only the Strong Need Apply

So far, 2013 is shaping up to be a great year for horror. Both a Stephen King and a Joe Hill book are coming out this year; the Stephen King miniseries Under the Dome comes out in June; and Donna Tartt, who I consider gothic horror, is putting out a new novel this fall. This last weekend I had choices about what to see out in the theaters—two! That almost never happens. Granted, one was a documentary on theories behind a very famous horror movie, but still, the diversity.

My horror-loving friends and I debated which movie to see, and we finally decided on Evil Dead at the Union Square movie theater, planning on drinks and food afterward to dissect the movie. I was excited because I saw Diablo Cody’s name attached to the screenplay on IMDb. A lot of people have bagged on her work after Juno, like Jennifer’s Body and United States of Tara, but I really like her. She writes strong, complex female and male characters, and the lady really likes her horror.

The Union Square movie theater’s gem is a man in a wheelchair who greets customers as they enter the theater. One of my friends was running late, so as two others saved seats, I waited downstairs for the straggler. Me and the greeter started talking about what movie I was going to see, and he said he’d seen it and that it was scary.

“How scary is it?”

He gave me a mischievous smile and said, “If I’m still working after you see it, come tell me what you thought.”

Another woman, a lover of the original Evil Dead trilogy, joined in the conversation, and we talked about our favorite Evil Dead movies and moments, and the greeter told us which were the best theaters in the complex and that I didn’t have to worry about being late for my 4:30 p.m. movie—it wouldn’t really start until 4:45 p.m.

I’d received e-mails telling me about how one woman, a movie critic, walked out of the theater because of a self-mutilation scene, and I started to get a little worried. I do not like torture movies—that’s why I had to quit the Saw franchise after the second movie. I draw the line at torture and animal cruelty, and guess what? This Evil Dead reboot hits on both.


I knew the filmmakers of the Evil Dead reboot would have to take a much different direction from the original, which is a classic. You can’t touch the zany mix of humor and over-the-top grotesqueness that are the original Evil Dead trilogy. The filmmakers decided to go with gore, and I knew I was in trouble, with the first scene establishing the story of the evil cabin in the woods, when I saw the torture instruments lying out on a wooden table in the basement, where all the bad juju happens.

It’s an interesting premise how the young group is gathered in the woods in the first place—to stage a drug intervention, where everybody promises to stay through to the end, no matter how crazy it gets, in order to help and support their friend/sister. When shit starts to go down, nobody’s able to really scream at the screen, Leave! Go! Get in the car and drive. Instead, it’s understandable when the character Mia (Jane Levy), going through withdrawal, is not believed after saying there’s something in the woods.


Her friends bumble through the cabin, trying to clean up the place, and come across the Book of the Dead locked up in the basement. One ends up releasing the demon complete with my favorite, the Raimi effect. Who knew that a camera strapped to a two-by-four would become such a legacy? I’m sure the footage was shot more artfully in this Evil Dead reboot, but it looks the same to me, and it’s an important link to the original trilogy.


The problem for me with this version of the Evil Dead is the too-realistic gore that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. I saw at least five people get up and leave the theater, not able to stomach any more, and at the end, reading credits and waiting for the legendary Bruce Campbell’s cameo, I didn’t see Diablo Cody’s name go by for screenplay. It made me wonder if her efforts were rubbed out.

I guess this is a great movie for some, but not me. The acting is good, the story makes sense, but I just don’t like torture films. I was counting down the bodies, knowing only one would be left standing and it was just a matter of time. Because the characters were all dying in such grisly ways, I didn’t grow attached to any of them. I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie again when it’s released on DVD, though the small screen might make the gore more tolerable. I prefer the goofy fun of the original Evil Dead.