Tag Archives: Horror

My Top 5 Indie Horror Films & My Growing Interest in the Genre

In the past year or so, I’ve noticed an increase in my appetite for the horror genre. Since this blog was started, I’ve written a post about my first experience reading a horror novel, a post about my recurring nightmares, and a post about the spookiness of the American college town I lived in for 3 years. In reviewing these three posts, I find myself wondering whether my tastes have suddenly changed, or if I’m actually returning to a proclivity for being scared that was always there. My first instinct is to believe the former- since I grew up in fear of horror movies and avoided them at all costs. As a kid I was exposed to things like The Ring, The Omen, and The Fly at sleepovers- and they left me utterly petrified and incapable of sleep. On one particular occasion I was exposed to the horror-comedy Scary Movie and when my mom came to pick me up the next morning I was visibly traumatized. It’s something she still remembers. After all, that was only last week. Kidding! I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I just wasn’t ready. Every other boy my age seemed unfazed by it all, and I grew up thinking I was a real pussy. But when I go deeper into my childhood, I encounter memories of my love of Goosebumps. I owned several of the books and was clearly interested in exciting my own sense of fear.

I’ve realized that I enjoy being scared, and I am attracted to the atmosphere of horror. And by atmosphere I mean all the elements of the mise-en-scène that contribute to that feeling of imminent danger. It’s not the danger itself, but the sense that it’s lurking around the corner. And I’ve enjoyed that for years in non-horror movies without realizing it- such as the scene in Nocturnal Animals where the normal family are getting followed and harassed by youths in the West Texas night. It’s a situation that could be real, and it had a much greater effect on me than the monsters of supernatural horror films. Since growing up and becoming desensitized acts of unspeakable violence as one does, I’ve watched things like Insidious and found myself thoroughly uninterested. Demons and phantoms just aren’t that intriguing- or indeed scary- to me.

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In the last year however, I’ve discovered several indie films that seem to encapsulate the brand of horror I’m interested in. They’re slow-boiling, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. They’re understated; by no means shying away from gore, but using it sparingly. They’re not concerned with testing your gag reflex- they prefer to cripple you psychologically.

Here’s my list of the top 5 indie horror films that have cemented my interest in the genre. They’ve all been released in the past 3 years and most of them are available on Netflix. What’s interesting is that three of these films all featured a near-car crash with an animal in the opening scene. I think it’s a plot device intended to keep the viewer in a state of panicked alertness without revealing the real threat of the narrative so soon.


  1. The Invitation – 2015

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I didn’t love this one quite as much as the first four, but it puts its pieces together skillfully, and I needed to round this list out to the nearest five. This movie does a great job of building suspense with the scenario of a dinner party where the hosts seem to be hiding something- but the payoff doesn’t ultimately match the rather effective tension that precedes it. The setting of the Santa Monica Mountains at night is suitably creepy, and the shadowy canyons that surround the mansions of the Hollywood Hills make me think that the Manson Family might be waiting around every corner. I definitely think the strangeness of Hollywood has a lot of potential for horror, and I can’t think of a better place for a movie to explore themes of Jonestown-style brainwashing.

 

  1. The Witch: A New England Folktale – 2015

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This is where the list gets tricky. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd spots were hard to separate. The Witch is the biggest outlier on the list as the most supernatural of the five films. Generally speaking, I’m not into horror films where the threat is something inhuman, but if a story is executed so well, you can’t help but make an exception. What I liked about this movie was that the supernatural elements were so subtle. The titular witch doesn’t even get much screen time, and when she does she’s nothing more than a fleeting, hunchbacked silhouette scuttling away in the darkness. She occupies that hazy twilight between the real world and the world of imagination, which I think supplements the feeling that we’re in a fairy tale. It’s not a monster movie. The witch is more of a Shakespearean literary device that drives the human characters bananas and then goes back to its warren to hibernate for the winter and put up a new set of shower curtain rings fashioned from baby teeth. The focus of the movie is on our pilgrim family, alone in the New England wilderness, and their descent into paranoia and madness.

 

  1. Bone Tomahawk – 2015

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I watched this movie in the cinema with my dad and my brother. It’s both a western and a horror film, but I went to see it because I simply love westerns. I really enjoyed the movie, so much so that I even fashioned my moustache in the style of Kurt Russell’s character. It didn’t quite have the consequences I intended however. As I approached my friends with a cocksure, outlaw swagger and a thumb in my belt, I was told “Damnit if you don’t look like the Pringles logo right now”.

I also spent my time thinking about what made the film a horror title exactly. And upon reflection, I think that it’s all about the cinematography and the pacing of the film. It’s a western, with western characters, a western setting, and a western conflict, but it’s shot like a horror film. The fictitious Indian tribe of the Troglodytes don’t do anything supernatural, but they are shot as if they are monsters. They command the same level of fear that comes with an evil that can’t be reasoned with, and it’s a genius idea. What the film does, is portray the Troglodytes through the lens of 19th century racism. The Troglodytes are like an amalgamation of every settler’s fear about Native Americans. There’s a line that stuck with me near the start, where an Indian character asks one of the protagonists if they’d even be able to tell the difference between his people and the Troglodytes. It’s reflective of the way Native American peoples as culturally and linguistically different from each other as they were with the Europeans, were grouped under the single banner of “savages” because of the color of their skin. By having the Troglodytes play the role of a terrorizing monster from a generic slasher film, Bone Tomahawk cleverly illustrates how Indians were monsterized in the Old West. It’s an excellent piece of art house cinema and an interesting reinvention of one of my favorite movie genres of all time.

 

  1. Gerald’s Game – 2017

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This is another Stephen King movie adaptation that’s turned out to be an absolute banger. It’s your classic sex-game-gone-awry literary scenario. A middle-aged couple go out to an isolated and idyllic lakeside cabin for the weekend in the hopes of rekindling their stagnating marriage. The mild-mannered husband surprises his buxom wife by dropping it on her that he’s always had a rape fantasy, and persuades her that the best way to save their lousy sex life is to let him handcuff her to the bed posts and pretend he’s an intruder. Obviously, things go sour, and before you know it you find yourself in a complex and sinister narrative that touches on everything from child abuse to necrophagia. Don’t give this one a miss! It’s on Netflix and it’s a haunting, psychological thriller written by one of the masters of suspense.

 

  1. Get Out – 2017

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There was never any doubt in my mind that Get Out would take the number one spot on this list. For one, it’s the most deserving- that is to say, it puts its pieces together in the most effectual and masterful way. The movie is a triumph on every level of filmmaking; its performances, cinematography, pacing, and script are equally excellent. There’s not a dull moment to be had, and the movie pays off the suspense it creates in its earlier scenes by fully engaging with the heart of its mystery and concluding that in a satisfying way. This is unlike The Invitation, in which things are left too vague and mysterious for the audience to give a dang.

But furthermore Get Out rightfully heads the top of this power ranking because it encapsulates everything I want from a horror movie. It plays with the kinds of fears and dangers that I find really interesting and scary; a small community (in this case a neighborhood) acting as though they’ve got something to hide, a series of unexplained disappearances, the sinister use of hypnosis. I think what’s really scary is the idea of trust being violated- in this film it’s the trust implicit in hospitality. It’s hosts that seem a little too perfect and saccharine, whose exaggerated smiles don’t sit right. It’s the idea of being in unknown territory, far from what’s familiar and safe. If you haven’t seen this one yet, I can’t recommend it enough! You don’t even have to be remotely a horror fan to enjoy it- it’s one of those movies that transcends genre.

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The Dark Side of Eau Claire

As I continue my study abroad series of personal essays, I’d like to pen a short post about the city of Eau Claire itself. So far I’ve covered culture shock, my social anxiety, the friends I’ve made, and the classes I took during my 2012 student exchange, but there doesn’t exist yet a post about the city I called home for a semester. It’s something I get asked about a lot- the kind of place it is, what it has on offer, how well it stacks up against the image of an American city as given to us in Hollywood movies. And of course, nothing you see on the big screen can really prepare you for your first time living in the United States. But just for fun, I’d place Eau Claire somewhere between Hawkins from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks, but with a downtown area looking as if it were lifted from the set of Tombstone and repopulated with the combined cast of literally every Baz Luhrmann movie. It’s not small enough to give you the creeps that everyone’s watching you, waiting for you to fall asleep, and you know that if you nod off for one moment they’ll feed you to the big monster made of Jell-O that lives in the sewage system. No, the locals are for the most part very friendly, but there are a few sinister figures and neighborhood oddballs. But the town is also not so big that it doesn’t have that community sense of identity, and you don’t have to worry that you’re in a concrete jungle so vast that no one will notice when you’re inevitably snatched on the way home from the bowling alley by a bloke impersonating a police officer just so he can make you the leading star in his homemade snuff film. In case you haven’t realized yet, I’m putting a twist on this post about my favorite college town.

When I tell people that I’m interested in horror, they’re often surprised. I don’t watch slasher movies or read horror novels. I’ve never gone trick-or-treating or dressed up for Halloween. But what I mean when I say “horror” is really better described as “spookiness”. I’m interested in the horror that exists in the everyday world, that beats quietly in the human heart. And it’s this morbid curiosity that can actually be traced back to the city of Eau Claire itself. During the summer of 2014, when I returned to the place that had changed my life less than two years prior, I was chilling with Anne-Marie at her place on First Avenue. As we waited for Aaron to get back from work, we flicked through the channels on TV.

Southern Fried Homicide!” she said in her best Savannah-drawl. Anne-Marie is superb at accents. It was her decision to put the documentary on that changed everything. We spent all day watching Investigation Discovery, and when Aaron got home he became hooked too. They were highly-stylized documentaries with dramatic reconstructions, and every time the woman in the program went for a walk in the woods or got up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, we’d recoil into the couch and squeal “No, no! Don’t do it!” as if it were in fact a fictional movie. It even got to the point where, after going to bed, Anne-Marie came back down the stairs to find Aaron and I with our hands over our mouths, sitting in the dark with the light of the TV flashing on our faces.

“When are you coming to bed?”

“Be right there, babe,” I remember him saying, and two hours later we were still sitting in the dark, watching the story of a girl from New Zealand getting murdered by some spoiled rich kid in Portsmouth.

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I probably took this fascination with horror a little too far however, culminating in a phone conversation in the winter of 2015 when Aaron asked what I was doing with myself in the UK. I replied in the thickest Australian accent I could that I was watching a show about a murder in the Outback mate.

“Good lord. You need to stop with these documentaries about Australian backpacker killers and leave the house,” Aaron said and we both started laughing.

But let’s get back to the real topic of this post- which is ultimately my attempt to convey my impressions of the city in which I found myself, and the way it always seemed like a spooky place to me. To give you a brief rundown, Eau Claire is a pretty desirable city as far as American cities go- it’s small, green, the streets are wide, there are no skyscrapers, there’s no pollution, and the whole place is surrounded on all sides by dense pine forests like that town in the Edge Chronicles. When I got there, it made me think that this was perhaps once a haven in the piney wilderness for travelers and merchants to stop off at on the way to Minneapolis. But really, I was seeing Eau Claire through the lens of Tolkien. The settlement in fact began as a lumber town, and there are plenty of remnants of that history. As my host family drove me around the spacious, quiet streets, they would throw facts and local trivia my way. There used to be a cornfield there, that kind of thing. It became clear to me that half of the city had remained almost exactly as it was, completely immutable, and that the other half had undergone some drastic changes. For the longtime resident, it seemed as though they would look in one direction and see the city exactly as they remembered it from their childhood, but then turn around and find themselves faced with a landscape as alien to them as it was to me.

My host mom liked to tell me how, when she was a kid, you had to cross the Chippewa by ferry. There’s a bridge there now. As we drove across it to the western edge of the city, we came into a place called Shawtown. The name instantly set my imagination into all kinds of spooky directions. I wanted to say, “Forget it Jake, it’s Shawtown,” and get to work on writing a gritty noir thriller. Shawtown was set up as a place for the families of the lumberjacks to live; the decadent Victorian mansions of the lumber barons themselves can be found on the east side of the river, nearer to downtown.

There’s the horror of one’s imagination and the horror of real life, and I experienced both throughout the three years I spent in Eau Claire. The horror of the imagination is taking a walk on a long path through the woods and finding a pink toddler’s shoe by the edge of the trees. There was no doubt in our minds that she had been snatched by the Hag of Half-Moon Lake; a pale, bloated witch with gills and webbed feet, her hair sickly green with algae.

“She’s a meat pie now,” I lamented, pointing at the shoe.

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There are mundane landmarks in Eau Claire with a quirky edge, places that for all intents and purposes are perfectly normal but nevertheless created this spooky atmosphere in my mind. Places like Pizza Del Re and the Pickle, unremarkable brick buildings that looked like fronts for mob activity, gave me the shivers. To say nothing of the many strip mall laundromats, the cheap fast food joints, the impossibly small bars, and beauty salons with bordered-up windows. Right on the edge of town there’s a place called The Antler’s Motel, where we assumed many a janitor had to fish a face-down body out of the pool. But by far the creepiest location of all is Banbury Place- an old tire factory on the edge of town that now rents its considerable floor space as warehouses and offices. Anne-Marie even had a roommate that used to cycle there, and I always said I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day her bike was found on the banks of a ditch, the front wheel silently spinning. Everyone liked to joke about how scary it looked, but that’s not to say it was in fact a place of unrelenting horror.

All those places aren’t necessarily the cause of anything sinister; they just contribute to the spooky backdrop. While I was in Eau Claire, there were plenty of real events to get scared about. There were reports of a strange man jumping out the bushes and flashing girls with his flaccid cock, there was the car chase and subsequent shooting in 2012- part of which I actually witnessed, there was the teenage runaway who crashed a stolen car full of cocaine right outside the Menominee Street Dairy Queen and ran off into the swamps of Carson Park, never to be heard from again- Aaron witnessed that one. There were the meth-heads that lived next door to Anne-Marie, whose half-naked children found no end of amusement in Superman-punching the passing cars. And there was the awful time that some deranged man tried to break into Anne-Marie’s house at night. It all adds up in the paranoid part of your psyche. One time my friend Zeke was showing me his student house, and insisted that I see the basement.

“You go first, I’ll be right behind you,” he said.

I made my way down into the pitch-blackness on a staircase that wobbled like a Jenga Tower after you start taking out the bottom few blocks. I reached the bottom of the stairs. It was cold and damp. Even though Zeke and I are good friends, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had lost his mind since I last saw him, and I braced myself for the ball-point hammer that was surely about to cave in my skull. But all of a sudden, the light flashed on and I found myself looking at a table with several upturned red solo cups.

“Dude! Check out our beer pong table!” Zeke said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He was still the same old Zeke.

I know this post is a little bit different to my usual personal essays, but before I finish my study abroad series, I’d like to give you an impression of the city I lived in as it existed for me. That, I believe, is the best way to go about travel writing; not to document the actual, literal Eau Claire- since I am not a local historian or a longtime resident- but to write about how it appeared to me, as an outsider. I’d love to get a dialogue going with some of you as well- let me know in the comments what seemingly normal places in your hometown give you the chills. Why do we see the haunted in the mundane?