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.


Insidious Has Some Good, Genuine Scares

With Hurricane Sandy, we were housebound for a couple days, but my sister and I were two of the lucky ones. During and after the storm, we kept our power, Internet, and water. The most major inconvenience we experienced was not having direct subway service for a week, but on Monday the glorious Q started working between most parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. With Internet and power, we were able to entertain ourselves with streaming Netflix, and I finally got to watch the horror movie Insidious, which has been haunting my queue for a while.

I’m glad my sister was home when I decided to watch it because the first half was so scary that I jumped a few times and maybe even yipped a little at one point. In Insidious, a family of five moves into a large house—mom and dad, two young sons, and an infant daughter. Patrick Wilson plays Josh, the father of the family, who is mysteriously absent for the first part of the story. He’s a schoolteacher and claims he is suddenly busy grading papers and tests. Knowing what a teacher’s salary is, I don’t see how this family can afford their living situation. Renai, his wife (Rose Byrne), is a stay-at-home mom and once-in-a-while music composer, yet they live in a house like this:

While Dad is teaching and grading papers, Renai gets to set up the household and take care of the kids. After getting her two boys off to school and her fussy baby down for a nap, she’s finally able to take a break and sit down at her piano for some R & R with her trusty baby monitor…and that’s when she hears mysterious, threatening voices over its speaker. I feel like I’ve seen this plot device used before in a movie, but for the life of me I can’t remember which one. It worked fabulously in Insidious, though—that’s the moment when Renai is aware that there’s something not quite right in her house.

Besides living in a haunted house, things start to get so much worse when one of her sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a mysterious coma. He’s whisked away to a hospital where doctors and specialists are unable to say what’s caused this condition, but they give the family hope that he may just wake up. When Dalton comes home (still in his comatose state), the haunting kicks into serious gear and various ghosts pop up, menacing Renai and her children but generally leaving her husband alone. This is the seriously scary part of the movie, where the entities appear for a flicker of a moment, like in The Sixth Sense or The Orphanage, and you never know where they’re going to be.

Renai finally comes to believe that it’s not her house that’s haunted but her comatose son. I have heard of this happening before, where for some reason ghosts attach themselves to a living person because of their warmth or some other quality. I’m not sure if I buy it. Once I had a dentist who liked to practice her New Age skills on me after cleaning my teeth or drilling and filling. She would do reiki treatments or something else where she would ring bells and wave tuning forks around my head. I didn’t mind that as long as it was free. But then she started telling me about how she could see spirits attached to me, one older, nasty woman in particular. She told me her daughter could get rid of her in a session and that she would set me up with an appointment if I wanted. I declined nicely and never went back to that dentist again. It just got a little too weird.

Rather than going this route, the movie ends up taking a Shirley MacLaine turn that was unexpected for me. But I found that once the monsters’ motives were revealed, they just didn’t seem that nefarious. After that, they end up getting a lot more screen time, but I liked it better when the monsters were mostly hidden in this movie. When they did come out, the scares were gone and they just weren’t that interesting anymore. Instead, I found myself more curious about this family’s source of income. Renai must have penned an incredible film score or something that kept them afloat since the family brought Dalton home in his comatose state—plugged into various machines with home health aides dropping by every once in a while. Either that or teachers get some killer health insurance.

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.