Go, Go, Guillermo!

Guillermo del Toro is probably my top horror director—if not the top, he’s definitely in my horror trinity. One of the things I like best about del Toro is how generous he is with other artists. He saw this short by Spanish filmmaker Andres Muschietti in 2008 and helped the artist develop it into the full movie Mama, which will be released January 18.


The short is terrifying, as is the trailer for the movie that will be coming out in three weeks.


I’m excited and plan on seeing the movie opening weekend to show my support. The last time Guillermo del Toro helped out a Spanish filmmaker, I was introduced to The Orphanage, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. Hopefully, Mama will hold me until del Toro’s own feature, Pacific Rim, comes out on my dad’s birthday, July 12. Maybe I’ll go visit my dad in Iowa to see that one.


Top Five Horror Movies Featuring Old People

My Girls Write Now mentee hates horror movies, but she likes to make sure I’m keeping up on mine. A few months ago, Danni and I were talking on the phone about writing projects, but then we got to horror movies and she wanted to know if I was excited to see Cabin in the Woods and The Raven. At the time I hadn’t even heard of them, so she e-mailed me the trailers; then she asked me, “Why are so many horror movies about teenagers?” I gave her what I’ve been told so many times—that one of the scary things about being a teenager is having your body change so dramatically in such a short amount of time and a horror movie mimics or shows what a teen might be feeling inside and outside. Then I told her that not all horror movies are about teenagers, and I would make her a list of some. So here it is: my top five list of horror movies featuring old people.

1. CRONOS: This one’s got a special place in my heart since it was my first horror magazine assignment. I was supposed to be reporting on a cult movie Raw Meat, but the magazine I was working for couldn’t get any art from the movie. Thankfully, Guillermo del Toro was introducing Raw Meat as an inspiration for his work, and he talked quite a bit about Hellboy, which was in preproduction at the time, and that ended up being my first horror movie article. At this event, del Toro showed his first full-length feature Cronos about a vampiric device created in the Middle Ages that gives users eternal life. An elderly antique dealer stumbles upon it and is menaced by the nephew of a dying man who will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Ron Perlman plays the nephew, and this movie is the beginning of the artist-muse relationship shared by Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman. It gets extra points for the most innovative use of a toy box that I’ve ever seen.

2. ROSEMARY’S BABY: Though Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is barely out of her teens in this movie, I chose this one because of the evil old people that surround her, never letting her make a move without commenting on it. Once Rosemary and her husband move into their dream apartment at the Bramford, the elderly in the building start to take an unusual interest in her. At a critical point in Rosemary’s pregnancy, which has been accompanied by constant pain, she decides to throw a dinner party and tells her husband, “I’m having a party for our old…I mean our young friends—Minnie and Roman are not invited. Neither is Laura-Louise nor is Dr. Sapirstein. It’s going to be a very special party. You have to be under sixty to get in.”

3. ALIEN: I think this is such a groundbreaking movie, and since it came out in 1979, not many other movies have been able to touch it. It starts out slow, building up the tension. We have a group of workers out in space starting their mission: They wake up, get dressed, eat a little something, drink coffee. Then they get their assignment, but it’s work—a little boring but something they have to do. First up, go check out this alien spaceship. They do, and worker Kane (John Hurt) provides the first scare of the movie with his alien rape from a pod, which leads to one of the scariest movie moments ever: the Alien birth scene. Probably the most brilliant part of this movie, though, is casting thirty-year-old Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. It was her first major film role, and she tore it up.

4. DAWN OF THE DEAD: While I love George Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead, I prefer the 2004 remake because U.S. shopping habits have changed so much and that is the main point of the movie. After flesh-eating zombies have taken over the world, a few surviving humans hole up in a mall, which is perfect for their needs. There’s food, water, furniture, supplies, and most importantly, security. Zombies, too, are attracted to the mall, remembering it as a place of importance. I love the casting of nurse Ana (Sarah Polley); it’s always important to have a medical authority in a zombie apocalypse who can tell you exactly what’s going on. And Ving Rhames as tough guy Kenneth is a joy to watch. I enjoy apocalypse movies so much because you have a large cast representing the general population and how it reacts after Earth is blighted by a natural or “unnatural” disaster.

5. THE THING: This is such a scary movie, and I’m glad I didn’t see it until my twenties. My friend’s teenage daughter was permanently traumatized after seeing this one at a tender age. It starts brilliantly, a beautiful panning shot of mountains, white, and ice and endless expanses of it. You know these characters, working guys, are out in the middle of nowhere and nobody’s around to help them. A helicopter mercilessly chases a beautiful husky dog, taking shots at it. When the copter crashes, you’re glad because these guys were trying to shoot a beautiful dog, but later in the kennel, all hell breaks loose. I knew a few guys in college who modeled themselves after the main character MacReady (Kurt Russell)—to the point where they would only drink J & B whiskey. I’m still not sure if that was deliberate product placement or not. Knowing John Carpenter, probably not.

Looking back on this list, I see that all the movies have to do with body horrors—using a vampire device to stay young, giving birth to aliens or a devil, or fighting off dead people who want to eat you. So maybe there is some truth to teenage horror movies being rooted in that scary thing known as puberty. Anything I’ve left off the list? What are some other horror movies with older people that should be included?

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

When my friend Susan told me that Guillermo del Toro was doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, I was taken by surprise.

What would he be reading? part of a book collaboration on film? No. It turns out that between screenwriting and directing, del Toro has taken time out to plan and write the first book of a vampire trilogy with writer Chuck Hogan (of the very excellent Prince of Thieves).

I knew I wanted to see this and got to the bookstore an hour before the event was to take place. The seating was already half taken up–mostly by men, I noticed–but I was able to find a decent spot halfway up to the reading area. As the time grew closer, the seats were all filled and those who went to the bathroom five minutes before the event lost their seats. The staff selected only females out of the sizable crowd standing in back to plug up the holes; this is nothing I’ve ever seen before at readings. Forced diversity?

I almost never buy a hardcover book anymore since space is at a premium in my apartment and I live close to some of the world’s greatest libraries. When del Toro said, though, that The Strain copies with the slashes in their book jackets were a limited run, I did geek out and buy one.

It is a beautifully designed book. Beneath the book jacket is a blurry blood-tinged photo of Grand Central Terminal, what I’ve always thought of as the gateway to New York’s subway system, which plays a big part in The Strain.

The Strain borrows some from the plot and characters of that vampire classic Dracula. The most successful refurbishing, I think, is the arrival of the vampire from the Old World to America. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an empty ship, the Demeter, crashes into the coastline of England; it has been mysteriously abandoned, but when the ship’s log is studied, officials discover that the crew was picked off one by one and sometimes in twos. In The Strain, a Boeing 777 cruises into JFK and then all communication stops. When an emergency response team finally boards the aircraft, they find rows and rows of dead passengers. Miraculously, four survive, but one of them, a lawyer, gets them sprung from quarantine. Later, the dead passengers reanimate, as well, and quickly get to work turning the New York population into vampires, with stingers beneath their tongues instead of fangs. These vampires are more akin to zombies, only looking to add to their group of the undead. They are not as finicky as the vampires I’ve grown up with and the turning procedure is as easy as sneezing on somebody.

The Strain moved quickly for me. I found it a gripping read until I got to the final showdown in the subway tunnels. In a Paris Review interview with Robert Gottlieb on the art of editing, writer Charles McGrath says, “There was a certain type of writing we used to laugh about a lot. We called it ‘cry of the loon’ writing–that kind of overblown nature prose.” In The Strain, I found evidence of what might be the “cry of the sewer rat.” Suddenly there was obsessive detail upon detail about the bowels of the New York City subway system, slowing down what had been a fine, clipping pace to a dead stop.

I can forgive it, however, when given such gems as these: “Matt’s throat rippled and bucked, and Eph attacked it, stabbing, knifeknifeknifeknifeknife.” That is a fine use of italics and stands as my favorite sentence of the book.

Burnt Offerings

At a dinner recently with friends, I talked about my horror blog and the conversation segued into movies that had scared everybody the most as kids. The sisters Leora and Sharoan brought up Burnt Offerings and were nearly peeing themselves while talking about the scary limo driver. I had never seen this movie, but with a cast featuring Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis, and Karen Black (the original scream queen), I immediately Netflixed it and Kristi and I watched it this last weekend.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bette Davis (who could not?), but with her appearance in Burnt Offerings, she has become my old-lady idol. Screw wrinkles, she puts on her eyeliner anyway, and of course, it’s liquid eyeliner. Red or orange lips and a black cigarette always in her hands, punctuating her bitter sarcasm. I adore her, with her little pooch stomach hanging out but stylish in bold floral prints, the height of seventies fashion.

Karen Black is also strong as the loving wife who twists domesticity into horror. The ladies dominate this little movie with the one adult male figure (Oliver Reed as Black’s husband) reduced to an infantile state, even further regressed than his son at one point when the wicked home and hearth has had its way with him.

The ending was a surprise to me, not because of where the story leads–any horror fan could see that one coming–but because the young son is allowed to see his father cartwheel from the top of the house and is then covered with his father’s blood when he splats on the family station wagon. That just doesn’t happen any longer in Hollywood. Children are comforted and cosseted with happy endings, reassured that nothing traumatic can’t be undone.

Foreign filmmakers are more daring when dealing with children. I’m thinking of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage by Juan Antonio Bayona. I do remember critics saying that Pan’s Labyrinth could never be made in today’s Hollywood because of the traumatic ending that happens to a child. Last night, I attended a panel with the Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata who filmed the Ringu series. He said there are no ratings systems in Japan and anybody can go see a horror film, whether they’re one year old or a hundred. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work since I saw The Devil’s Backbone. And then I saw him speak, introducing Gary Sherman’s Death Line, a very low-budget horror film made in England during the 1970s. Del Toro was a large, round-shouldered guy who I first saw in my peripheral vision in the aisle adjacent the row I was sitting. I had an empty seat to the right of me and was worried that he would claim it for his own, jostling my writing arm (I was working on an article about Death Line at the time and had never seen del Toro before, so I mistook him for a latecomer). He clutched a leather-bound notebook and approached the stage once he had been introduced. I loved him immediately; he was a funny, funny guy who was heartily Catholic and steeped in stories.

My Death Line story fell through, but I got an even better story in the process because del Toro talked about his upcoming movie Hellboy and his fascination with subways and sewers, pet subjects of my own. That leather-bound notebook held sketches for the Hellboy characters. I was not disappointed when the first Hellboy came out, but the second installment in the series did not touch me with the same sense of wonder, the idea that I had been touched by genius. Of course, it must be difficult to be a genius all the time. I’ve just come to expect it from del Toro with such masterpieces as Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

I’m coming to recognize del Toro’s stylistic flourishes and could easily pick them out in Hellboy II: The Golden Army–the cogs, wheels, and clockwork that he’s fond of; a clutched rosary and other Catholic imagery; and his arsenal of the most fantastic, most glorious monsters since Jim Henson’s. I feel bad for Selma Blair’s Liz Sherman who must compete against men with monster makeup while she only has a corona of fire to set her apart. Her very human character is at a disadvantage when matched against her red devil boyfriend Hellboy and the philosophic fishman Abe Sapien. In the first Hellboy there were more human characters so Liz Sherman wasn’t lost onscreen, but in the second installment, it’s hard for her to command attention when appearing with elves, trolls, and toothfairies. The eye always goes to the creatures, though many of them aren’t as important to the story as Liz is.