Horror Movie Watch: House

This house is a 'viager.' Have you seen My Old Lady? This is the house's Maggie Smith.

This house is a ‘viager.’ Have you seen My Old Lady? This is the house’s Maggie Smith.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is sort-of-comedic-horror movie House (1986), directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th: Part 2, Lake Placid), and not to be confused with the gonzo Japanese movie of the same name. It was suggested by friend, author, and Type Books staffer Kyle Buckley (read his great book, The Laundromat Essay). Kyle vividly remembers House as his first horror movie (viewed at age 9), and remembers being completely terrified of it. He joined me for the screening of House in a sort of therapeutic confrontation of his childhood fears.

As always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of House. They have the Japanese Hausu, as well. They’ve got it all!

What happens:

While I’d never seen House as a child, I remember trailers for the movie, and – like Kyle – I remember them being terrifying. Vague images about a medicine cabinet and a staircase stood out in my memory. Kyle was traumatized as a child by the movie – by one line in particular – and we’ll get to that soon enough. But I also had the impression that the movie was sort of comedic, along the lines of Evil Dead 2. So how scary could it be? Kyle and I intended to find out.

The film opens with an establishing shot of a stately house. I know nothing about architecture, so I couldn’t tell you more than that. It looks like a nicer version of the Bates Motel through the filter of the American suburbs. The camera pans across shutters and cornice work so you didn’t accidentally start watching the wrong film. This is definitely about a house. A grocery delivery boy zips up to the house on a moped and knocks on the door. There’s no answer, but the door creaks open. The grocery boy (that’s how he identifies himself) enters and calls for ‘Mrs. Hooper.’ He slowly creeps through the large house, passing fish trophies and really bizarre, unsettling paintings. He then receives the shock of a lifetime when he enters Mrs. Hooper’s bedroom and finds her hanging from the ceiling.

Next we see author Roger Cobb (William Katt) attending his aunt, Mrs. Hooper’s, otherwise poorly-attended funeral. Immediately after, he does a book signing at a local bookstore. Cobb is the author of horror novels, and the super-fans at his signing are a weird mix of new-wavers and punks crossed with some older members from the Tilley hat set. We quickly establish that (a) he has been recently estranged from his wife, a television actress named Sandy Sinclair (Kay Lenz) and (b) he hasn’t written a new book in a while. When a fan asks what his next book will be about, he responds it will be based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. This does not impress his agent one bit.

Roger returns to his lonely bachelor existence, eating microwave pizzas (which he doesn’t even take out of the box!) and pretending to be in the midst of wild parties whenever his estranged wife calls. (However, she does call him from a pay phone during an awards ceremony, so who’s the strange one, really?) He also calls the FBI to see if they have any news about his son, who we can assume is missing. (Seems unlikely the FBI would have opinions about his son otherwise.) That night, Roger has a nightmare. He’s a child, playing in a graveyard (mistake #1), when a hand shoots out of the earth right in front of his face.

The next day, Roger goes to inspect his deceased aunt’s house with the estate attorney. He informs the attorney that he actually grew up in his aunt’s house: after his parents died, his aunt raised him. Roger then has a sudden flashback: he’s an adult, trimming the hedges at his aunt’s house, and loses sight of his son, Jimmy, who was – moments ago – playing in the backyard. He runs around the house and finds him struggling in the pool. Roger leaps into the water but can no longer find him. Jimmy’s mysteriously disappeared! When the police come to question Roger and Sandy, Mrs. Hooper cryptically says that the house took him. When Roger returns to the present reality, the estate attorney tours him through the house and accidentally nearly kills him with a harpoon gun. (Roger’s uncle was a big fish hunter; there’s a giant sailfish mounted in the den.) Mrs. Hooper, Roger’s aunt, was something of a painter and she’s the artist behind the weird paintings that adorn the house’s walls. Against the estate attorney’s wishes, Roger announces he won’t sell the house. He’s going to live in it and work on his new book.

In this neighbourhood, it's like everybody knows your name.

In this neighbourhood, it’s like everybody knows your name.

Almost immediately after moving in, Roger begins to see strange things. He hears someone upstairs, and when he enters the bedroom, he sees his aunt – alive and well – who warns him, ‘It won. It’s going to trick you, too. Leave while you can.’ Then she hangs herself and vanishes. He tries to ignore it and goes to sleep in his childhood bed, which looks like a covered wagon. (You know, like a normal adult would.) In the morning, things look better, and he even meets some nice neighbours, like an attractive blonde jogger, and next-door neighbour Harold (George Wendt), who immediately recognizes Roger Cobb as the author of some of his favourite books. (He literally has a copy of one of his books in his back pocket!) Roger, wary of his super-fan, says he needs a lot of solitude to write, and retreats into his house. That night, while working on his book, which has the most pedestrian title ever – One Man’s Story – Roger has his first Vietnam flashback. He remembers being in his platoon and butting heads with an aggressive alpha-male named Big Ben (Richard Moll), a fellow solider who grumbles, ‘Nobody tells me what to do!’ (Obviously this shouldn’t be a problem, working in the military.) The scene ends in an ambush and Roger wakes with a start.

Roger starts to see things again when he wakes from his dream. He sees a child (maybe his son, Jimmy?) appear as a vision in a window and he (inexplicably) turns it off with the TV remote. (What?) He follows a child’s voice upstairs, but finding nothing, fears he’s losing his mind. Following strange sounds again, he opens the closet in his aunt’s bedroom, and it’s completely empty. Moments later, midnight strikes, so he opens the closet again. Suddenly, a hideous monster jumps out and slashes at him with its claws. Seemingly not spooked enough by this encounter to, say, leave the house, he stays overnight and, the next day, brings in a pile of camera equipment and sets it up outside the closet door to catch this demonic creature on film. He dons military gear and practices his escape route. That night, he readies his camera and opens the door, but nothing happens. Then Harold barges in with a midnight snack, making Roger jump. ‘Solitude’s always better with someone else around,’ he chirps.

Roger confides in Harold about the thing in the closet. Harold worries that Roger’s having a bit of a breakdown. After all, Roger Cobb hasn’t had an easy life: his parents died when he was a child, he served in Vietnam, his wife just left him, and his kid has gone missing. Still, Harold assures him, he’s not ‘Looney Toons’ like his aunt. That’s when Roger lifts his shirt to show Harold the very real scratch marks left by the creature. On his way out, Harold steals Roger’s little black book and calls Sandy Sinclair immediately to warn her that Roger is seeing things and needs some help. Sandy calls Roger immediately, but he doesn’t answer – he’s deep in another Vietnam flashback. Big Ben and Roger have been appointed the lead spot in their patrol, and Ben is being a little too loud. It’s almost like he wants to get shot at. When he wakes, Roger is really shaken.

Moments later, he sees a toy car roll across the carpet, and asks, ‘Jimmy?’ Suddenly, the sailfish on the wall starts to flop around like a Billy Bass. Roger runs for his shotgun in the shed, but the garden implements come to life and throw themselves at him. He runs inside and opens fire on the fish (which was harmlessly flopping on the wall), killing it. He goes to get some pills in the medicine cabinet upstairs, but the gardening tools have followed him. He narrowly escapes them and traps them in a room. When he heads back downstairs, his estranged wife Sandy is at the door, come to check on him. But within moments, she turns into a hideous monster and Roger blows her through the front door with his shotgun. But when he follows the monster onto the sunlit porch, he sees it’s just his normal human wife, Sandy, he’s shot to death. Harold, hearing gunfire and seeing Roger on his front porch with a gun, calls the police.

As police sirens blare, Roger drags his dead wife into the crawlspace under the stairs. When the police arrive, he’s pretending to polish his shotgun on the front stoop. (As Kyle and I both grimly noted, if Roger were black, our story would have ended here.) He tells the police he was polishing his gun (as one does on the front porch) when it went off. They’re about to write him up for firing a gun within city limits, but then they recognize him as the author of Blood Dance. When the police eventually leave, he checks the crawlspace again and his wife’s body is gone. He heads upstairs to check the closet and is attacked from behind by the evil monster Sandy, who takes his shotgun and butts him him in the head with it, taunting him about his missing son: ‘Where’s your son, Roger? You’ll never find him. He’s dead!’ Roger scurries away and, while on the floor, opens the door where he’d previously trapped the garden tools. They fly out and decapitate the monster Sandy.

Big Ben, who has actually never even been to London.

Big Ben, who has actually never even been to London.

Roger then starts to separately bury the head and body of the monster in his backyard (in the middle of the day, to a rollicking rendition of Linda Rondstadt’s ‘You’re No Good‘). However, he finds his German-sounding neighbour, Tanya, is making use of his very nice pool. (On a side note, it’s a really strange pool for Roger’s elderly aunt to have. As Kyle noted, ‘That’s like a sex pool,’ and it does look something like the grotto of the Playboy Mansion.) Anyway, Tanya apparently was given free rein over the pool when Roger’s aunt was living there, and she has a short conversation with Roger, who desperately tries to keep his beautiful neighbour from noticing the body of the monster – which is still moving around – under a tarp at her feet. She leaves without noting the supernatural aspects of the yard, and Roger then chops the monster into dozens of pieces, burying them all separately in the backyard.

That night, Roger spots Harold’s golden retriever digging up the monster’s hand. He chases after the dog and runs into Tanya, who has shown up with her young son, Robert. She wants Roger – who, keep in mind, is almost a total stranger – to babysit Robert while she goes out. Roger is a bit distracted, however, as he notices the monster hand is on the kid’s back. So he carries Robert to the bathroom and flushes the hand down the toilet. When he exits, Tanya is like, ‘Is anything wrong?,’ and he’s like (but not really), ‘Why, I was just in the bathroom with your child, nothing weird about that.’ Anyway, Roger attempts to multitask, watching over Robert while also writing his book and watching his wife’s television show, Resort. As is often the case, he finds himself back in The ‘Nam (in his head at least), and he remembers Big Ben being shot by Charlie. When he wakes, Robert has gone upstairs into the bedroom and is being pulled up the chimney by two demonic kid creatures. Roger manages to prevent them from taking him, then gives Robert a bath and returns him to Tanya at the end of the night.

Roger invites Harold over to watch a movie, but as soon as he walks in, informs him he deceived him. Instead, he’s trapped a ‘raccoon’ in the closet upstairs – it wasn’t a ghost or monster after all, just a big raccoon – and he wants Harold to help him kill it. He gives Harold his uncle’s old harpoon gun and tells him to shoot when he opens the door. It’s after midnight, so as soon as Roger pulls the door wide, the terrifying monster jumps out. Roger beats it with a fireplace poker, but Harold is too shocked to shoot at first. Eventually, he fires, but it has little effect. Roger gets sucked into the closet, even as Harold tries to reel him back in by the harpoon tether. It’s of no use – Roger has been sucked into the closet portal and finds himself in his Vietnam flashback, just where he left off. Ben, mortally wounded, begs for Roger to kill him. Roger holds his trench knife to his neck, but tearily confesses he can’t do it. He goes to get a medic, but as he does, the Viet Cong drag Ben off into the jungle, Ben cursing all the way. Roger runs all the way back to the closet door and leaps back into his aunt’s bedroom. Harold is still there, having sat watch while drinking Jack Daniels all night.

Yes, this is probably behind your medicine cabinet, as well.

Yes, this is probably behind your medicine cabinet, as well.

In the shed, Roger takes a closer look at one of his aunt’s paintings. Not only does it clearly show the closet is a portal to another dimension, it also shows a child (Jimmy?) trapped in the medicine cabinet. Roger heads immediately to the upstairs washroom and smashes the medicine cabinet mirror, revealing an endless void behind it. A black tentacle reaches out and it (and additional appendages) begin to pull him into the void. He grabs a straight razor from the sink – lucky he doesn’t shave with a safety razor – and fights back. Once the monster disappears, he outfits himself with his military gear, flashlight, shotgun, and a long rope, and rappels into the void. As he does, a flying skull monster (yes) strafes him, eventually taking his gun and shooting it through his rope. Roger splash-lands into water, and when he surfaces, he’s again in the Vietnam jungle. He finds his son, Jimmy, imprisoned in a tiger cage, so he frees him and the two run away from the prison camp, followed by gunfire. They leap into the water again, and emerge from the sex pool in Roger Cobb’s backyard. Roger has rescued his son. It’s a happy ending!

Well, not quite yet. When they get to the front door, Roger is confronted by the rotting corpse of Big Ben, complete with military fatigues. He’s responsible for the haunting, and he’s who kidnapped and imprisoned Jimmy. ‘They tortured me for weeks,’ he spits at Roger. (This was the line that terrified a young Kyle Buckley; weeks of torture as a P.O.W. is something a nine-year-old might find hard to fathom.) This ordeal has been Big Ben’s revenge. Roger smashes Big Ben with a chair, then rips off his arm and beats him with it, but Big Ben opens fire on him and Jimmy, separating them (though he runs out of ammo quickly). Eventually, Roger stumbles through another portal (which leads to a cliff face), but he tricks Ben and pulls him down to his death (or does he?). Roger runs upstairs, where he finds Ben (still alive) holding Jimmy up by an atomic wedgie. He holds a knife to Jimmy’s face and says, ‘I’ll kill him unless you kill yourself.’ That’s when Roger realizes something: about the house, about what his aunt said, about how his aunt died. The house can’t kill him; it can only make him kill himself. So he grabs Jimmy from Big Ben, pulls the pin from a grenade on his uniform, and runs downstairs. The upper story of the house explodes as Sandy pulls up in a taxi. The family is reunited and the movie ends with a freeze fame of Roger, holding Jimmy in his arms.

And we all learned an important lesson about playing in a cemetery.

And we all learned an important lesson about playing in a cemetery.

Takeaway points:

    • We’ve felt with a lot of themes this Horror Movie Watch, but one that hasn’t come up a lot is guilt, the principal theme of House. In particular, survivor’s guilt. Guilt is what fuels the titular house! We can’t assume that Big Ben is literally a ghost that haunts the building. If so, then why would he make Roger’s aunt kill herself? Or why would his spirit be connected to a house he’d probably never seen before? The house is best understood as a manifestation of whatever the occupant feels most guilty about. In Roger’s case: it’s that he failed to kill his fellow soldier Big Ben, and Ben suffered untold torture at the hands of the enemy. Survivor’s guilt is a powerful thing. Roger blames himself for Ben’s torture and death, and exploring his Vietnam experiences brings this guilt to the forefront. Given how much the imagery of Catholicism comes up in horror films, it’s strange more of the ones I’ve viewed this month haven’t explored the issue of guilt.
    • Another theme that House explores is traditional masculinity, in that Roger faces his own issues regarding his masculinity. When the film opens, he has, in his mind, (a) proven unable to protect his child, and (b) proven unsuitable for a romantic companion. His fear of the house worries him that he’s not a brave (or ‘manly’) person. And Big Ben is depicted as a bully that taunts Roger for his lack of manliness. ‘Roger, you hit like a little girl,’ he cries as Roger beats him with his own severed arm. In the film, manliness is equated with the ability to kill things. Roger was unable to kill Ben in Vietnam, but in the house, he’s surrounded by evidence of his uncle’s past success at being a man – mounted fish, jaws from sharks, all sorts of hunting trophies. When Roger needs someone to help him kill the creature, he invites over Harold, another man, instead of his equally capable neighbour, Tanya. He confronts the demonic version of his wife by killing her (at least a couple times), which is so Freudian, it could be its own essay. In addition to House being ‘one man’s story’ of confronting and overcoming his guilt, it’s also one of a man regaining masculinity (as archaically as that term might be defined here): by the end, he is able to protect a stranger’s son, get his own son back, and kill a threat within his house.
    • One funny thing that separates House from other films in the ‘haunted house’ genre is that Roger Cobb never once thinks about leaving the house, or calling for help. Typically, people try to leave or sell the house, but are prevented by a variety of unlikely circumstances. Or at the very least, the occupants might try to employ a spiritualist or medium or even police officer to help them rid the house of spirits. Roger sees a terrifying monster in the closet, and sleeps there that very same night. With the exception of some help from Harold, he’s headstrong, determined to stay in the house and rid it of its monsters all by his lonesome. It’s never even a question of him possibly moving.
    • Somehow, House spawned three sequels! (As Kyle quipped, somehow a second season of My So-Called Life was too risky, but Hollywood’s decided to finance four films in the House franchise.) Apparently, each one features a different occupant moving into the house, and contains an individualized blend of horror and comedy. The fourth House film brings back original protagonist Roger Cobb, though, confusingly, he has an entirely different family.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Neither. I can see why a young Kyle Buckley was so afraid of it, though. There are a couple scenes – the monster in the closet, the first appearance of the monster Sandy – that are quite scary. Though it is something of a horror-comedy, so for every scare, there’s also a joke or lighter moment. But to young Kyle, the scariest part was the Vietnam P.O.W. experience, which makes a lot of sense. It’s a good thing nine-year-old Kyle never watched Rolling Thunder.

There's a certain point when a sweater stops becoming a V-neck and starts becoming an open vest.

There’s a certain point when a sweater stops becoming a V-neck and starts becoming an open cardigan.

Best outfit: There are some fine illustrations of ’80s wear in House, most notably Roger Cobb’s author-signing outfit (including suspenders and a patterned blazer with the sleeves rolled up). But there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the show-stopper is Cobb’s V-neck sweater, featuring the deepest ‘V’ seen outside of a SoulDecision music video. It should be illegal to wear a V-neck that deep with no shirt underneath. I could basically see William Katt’s navel.

Best line: Can you beat sexy neighbour Tanya’s line, ‘I can tell when a man wants to work. I can also tell when he wants to play’? Only if you refer to the lines spoken in Sandy Sinclair’s television show, Resort, during which two characters have this exchange:
‘My sister is an only child and you abused her. I can never forgive you for that.’
‘I can’t hide the fact that I’ve been a male prostitute my entire life.’

Best kill: Not too many people die in House, but it’s pretty neat when the monster Sandy’s head is chopped off by garden shears.

Unexpected cameo: House features a holy trinity of well-known television actors. William Katt was The Greatest American Hero, while George Wendt and Richard Moll were key actors in toe beloved ’80s sitcoms, Cheers and Night Court, respectively. But what you may have missed is that one of the police officers is played by Steven Williams, character actor to the stars who is probably best known as Mr. X from The X-Files.

Unexpected lesson learned: I think, after viewing House, we can all agree it’s best to suppress any and all traumatic experiences, and never explore them through writing.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Blood Dance, the name of one of Roger Cobb’s novels.

Next up: The Descent (2005).

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Horror Movie Watch: Wrong Turn

Everything is not five-by-five, Eliza Dushku discovers, in Wrong Turn.

Everything is not ‘five-by-five,’ Eliza Dushku discovers, in Wrong Turn.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is don’t-get-lost-in-the-woods modern classic Wrong Turn (2003), directed by Rob Schmidt and suggested by friend, author, and brilliant social commentator Stacey May Fowles (read her great book, Infidelity).

As always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of Wrong Turn. I didn’t check, but they probably also have Wrong Turns 2 through 6, as well.

What happens:

I think I’d melded Wrong Turn with another movie I hadn’t seen from the same era, U Turn, in my mind. So, while I knew this movie starred Joss Whedon muse Eliza Duskhu and was a latter-day American horror film, following from the popularity of I Know What You Did Last Summer and others, I also kind of thought it would be noirish? (That was my mistake.)

Wrong Turn opens with an aerial shot showing a dense forest – there are so many trees in West Virginia – where our story is about to unfold. Two rock climbers scale a cliff face, and the male of the duo, Rich, reaches the top while his rock-climbing partner, Halley, struggles a bit. She asks him to help her up, but hears a ‘galumph’ sound as Rich falls down at the edge of the cliff. Blood drips onto Halley’s face and Rich is hucked over the side of the cliff. Someone or something begins to pull her rope up, and Halley panics. Craftily, she cuts herself free from the rope, but then falls to the ground below, just beside Rich’s body. Luckily, she’s only injured (it was a big fall, but not that big), but as she gets to her feet, she hears eerie cries and movement in the forest at the top of the cliff. She runs for her life, but trips on barbed wire (which is basically my worst nightmare) and then is pulled into the forest.

The opening titles feature newspaper reports and photos about inbreeding, deformity, and murder, aiming for a Texas Chain Saw Massacre feel, then we’re introduced to one of our protagonists, Chris Flynn (Desmond Harrington) a medical student currently stuck in traffic on his way to a job interview in Raleigh. He goes to investigate the sudden stoppage and is told by some unfriendly truck drivers that a trailer jack-knifed and spilled chemicals up the road. Chris returns to his car and turns in the other direction, hoping to find a detour. He dials his interviewers on his cell phone, but his battery runs out. Undaunted, he drives off onto a side road and finds a gas station. The public telephone there is broken, but he finds an ancient map on the wall that seems to indicate a dirt road detour around the highway. The tooth-poor and (also) unfriendly gas station attendant warns, as Chris drives off on the detour, ‘You’re the one who needs to take care.’ (Are you scared yet?)

Engaging in distracted driving (picking up a CD off the floor, gawking at a dead deer at the side of the road), Chris rams into a van parked across the middle of the road. The occupants, unhurt, leap out and start to yell at Chris. The two men and three women were going camping but got lost. Their van is stopped in the middle of the road because they ran over some errant barbed wire. These van occupants include Jessica (Eliza Dushku), newly engaged couple Scott (Jeremy Sisto) and Carly (Emmanuelle Chirqui), and perpetually stoned couple Evan (I know, right?) and Francine. Immediately, I worried for my namesake. As a recreational drug user, he didn’t have long in a horror movie. Jessica (or ‘Jessie’) was recently dumped and her friends wanted to take her for a camping trip to help cheer her up. Tragically, nothing that will happen in Wrong Turn is likely to put a smile on Jessie’s face. The group leaves Evan and Francine with the van as they go to search for help. Shortly into their hike, they discover barbed wire stretched across the road: it was no accident.

Lifehack: don't enter a house like this.

Lifehack: don’t enter a house the looks like this.

While the rest of the group hike and learn about each other – Carly really doesn’t want to elope, Chris displays his biological knowledge by correctly identifying a dead mink – Evan and Francine get high and have an outdoor quickie. (The words, ‘Get them trousers off, Evan,’ were uttered and I got a case of the vapours.) They also go through the doctor’s stuff, and while Francine is rummaging through his car, Evan goes missing. Francine goes into the woods, looking for her stoner buddy, and finds a bloody ear on the forest floor. Backing up in horror, she’s garrotted through the mouth with some sort of razor wire, and it’s pretty unpleasant (but quick).

The remaining living protagonists continue on until they discover an old house in a clearing, surrounded by junked cars. They knock and find no one home, so they debate entering. Chris wants to look for a phone and Carly needs to pee, but Scott, in a moment of self-reflexiveness, says, ‘Need I remind you of a little movie called Deliverance?’ They do, however, enter the old house, which looks like it was frozen in the 1930s. They find an old phonograph and food scraps – evidence of the house being recently inhabited – but also things that don’t match the old-timey decor: multiple car keys, sunglasses, modern children’s toys. As they investigate the house further, Chris finds a fridge full of preserved organs, Jessie finds a roll of barbed wire, and Carly finds a human hand in the tub. But these discoveries are made about a few minutes too late! As they reconvene in the kitchen, they see an old truck barreling towards the house, their own vehicles in tow.

This is a problem. The Scooby gang frantically looks for a place to hide. Scott and Carly hide in a closet, while Chris and Jessie become fast friends by flattening themselves against the ground under a kitchen table. In walk our three villains – deformed mountain men – who dump Francine’s bloody body (razor wire still caught in her mouth) on the floor right in front of Chris and Jessie. They try not to hyperventilate as her blood seeps across the floor and onto Chris’s wrist. The mutant trio then strap Francine’s body to a table and begin to saw her limbs off, as they’ll be preparing her for dinner. (These deformed mountain men are also, naturally, cannibals.)

After their meal, the three cannibal housemates nap – does human meat have tryptophan in it? – leaving Francine’s gory body strapped to their kitchen table. Chris and Jessie quietly creep out from under the table and Carly and Scott follow. While the monsters sleep, they’re going to slip out. They’re almost undone by the rusty spring on the screen door, but Chris heroically stops the spring with his palm, cutting his hand quite badly. Just as they’re almost out the door, one of the mountain men wakes up and Chris shouts to run. The four bolt up a hill while the cannibals hop into their truck. On their flight from the Little House of Horrors on the Prairie, the group comes across a large open field, just lousy with abandoned cars and vans, covered in blood: the vehicles of untold scores of previous victims. ‘How do they get away with this?’ Chris asks, which is a really good question – these cannibals aren’t, like many serial killers, murdering marginalized people without robust social networks; they’re largely killing tourists.

While they marvel at the death toll, the truck pulls into the field, and our four heroes hide behind a van. The cannibals exit the truck and leave it running, which leads the Scooby gang to devise a plan to steal their ride. Chris offers to provide a distraction to lead them away, but while running and hollering, is shot in the leg. (Nice distraction work, Chris.) Scott then offers to provide the second distraction, running in the other direction, and is a bit more successful. As the three cannibals pursue him, Jessie and Carly help the injured Chris get to the truck. They open the passenger door and Evan’s dead body falls out (I knew it), but they push him aside and drive off, looking for Scott. Jeremy Sisto is a really good runner, because he just punches it through the forest. Just as he’s (or Scott’s) about to converge with the other three, driving in the truck, he’s shot through the chest with an arrow, then two others. He collapses to the ground and is dragged off by the cannibal mountain men, forcing the other three to drive on without him.

Our inbred cannibal killers, doing their best to keep fit.

Our inbred cannibal killers, doing their best to keep fit.

Obviously, Carly is upset; her fiancé is dead – future food for three very unpleasant people. In no time, the truck runs aground (as if it were a ship), so they’re forced to continue on foot. Jessie has to convince Carly to press on for Scott’s sake, otherwise his death was meaningless. And Chris just barely manages with a makeshift walking stick. (The stick comes in particularly handy when it sets off a hidden bear trap.) Eventually, they find a watchtower and climb to the top. No one is stationed inside, and they can’t see any settlement for miles, but they do find first-aid supplies and some neat lights. Carly also finds an old radio, and the group tries to call for help as night falls. However, they soon see their tormenters travelling by torchlight toward the tower, and kill the lights. Timing is everything, though, and the radio suddenly squawks and a emergency responder asks for their position. The cannibals hear the radio, and set the tower on fire.

Trapped in a towering inferno, the group decides to smash the windows and jump into the trees. There are branches about twenty feet below, and – amazingly – all three catch branches on their jump from the tower. But one of the cannibals is a skilled climber, too – a little spider-monkey, he is – and soon there’s an intense chase through the treetops, our heroes edging along branches and narrowly avoiding arrows. Carly, bringing up the rear, is axed through the mouth and the lower half of her body drops to the forest floor. That’s when Chris sets a trap by pulling back a long branch and using Jessie as bait. It works, and the branch, set loose, knocks the cannibal to the ground – a fall he miraculously survives. Jessie and Chris escape and find refuge in a cave behind a waterfall. The two survivors are able to share a quiet moment, during which Jessie expresses immense guilt: her friends were just being good friends, trying to get her mind off her breakup, and now they’re all dead.

They sleep safely through the night, but are awakened with a start by cannibal-themed nightmares (as you might expect). After a morning hike, they finally come to a road, but the cannibals are hot on their heels, and Chris nearly gets an axe in the head. The cannibals abduct Jessie and shove Chris down a hill. He falls onto the road and flags down a state trooper, who’s been looking for them since the radio transmission last night. Chris tells him that people took Jessie, and just as the trooper asks, ‘What people?’ he gets an arrow through the eye. Chris tries to drive the trooper’s truck away, but more arrows zip toward him. He hides and fakes the mutant bowman out by secreting himself under the truck. The cannibal dumps the trooper’s body in the back of the vehicle, then drives off; Chris, demonstrating the incredible upper-body strength of most med students, manages to hold himself up under the transmission of the truck the entire ride back to the old house.

Back at the house, the cannibals have Jessie tied down to the murder table and gagged, but they’re saving her for later. When the third cannibal arrives with the state trooper, they waste no time in chopping off his head. They then move toward Jessie when Chris drives the trooper’s truck (which is now on fire, somehow) through the front of the house, killing one of the three and setting the whole house ablaze. He then beats another with a tire iron and stabs him through the chest. Chris runs to Jessie and partially frees her from her wire wrist bindings, but then one of the cannibals returns and swings at Chris with an axe. He pins Chris to the wall, and heaves back with his axe as Jessie desperately tries to free her other hand. With seconds to spare, she succeeds and pulls a bow from the wall, firing an arrow right through the cannibal’s head. (Jessie is the original Katniss Everdeen.) But the skinny guy, who pursued them through the trees, isn’t dead yet. He runs in with a baseball bat, but our two heroes are able to overcome him and Jessie buries an axe in his chest. They think their ordeal is over when they realize all three cannibals are slowly struggling to their feet. They’re unstoppable! Jessie begs Chris to shoot them, but he laments, ‘I’ve only got one shot left.’ They back out of the burning building and Chris fires, causing the entire tinderbox of a house to explode.

Two denouements follow: (1) Jessie and Chris pull back into that gas station from the beginning. Chris, beaten and bloody, staggers out and tears off the map from the wall. (2) In a second ending, some hapless state trooper goes investigating the charred house of the cannibals, on his own … at night. (Standard operating procedure, I assume.) One of the cannibals survived the explosion, and he laughs maniacally as he kills the trooper. Fin.

Tragically, Chris is a med student, not a car-hotwiring student.

Tragically, Chris is a med student, not a car-hotwiring student.

Takeaway points:

    • Many other horror films engage in this – Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Calvaire spring readily to mind – but Wrong Turn is especially egregious in its unflattering depiction of the rural poor. Can you think of a horror movie where a southerner living below the poverty line didn’t immediately denote danger? The story of Wrong Turn is, in essence, the story of upwardly mobile, urban young people terrorized and killed by poor, rural people. For no reason, other than – let’s say – inbreeding has made them psychotic and cannibalistic. In many horror films, the killers are given some psychological motivation for their crimes, however flimsy and unrealistic it may be. Or the director and writer may avoid motivation to explore the killer’s particular brand of hatred. In films like Wrong Turn (for it’s spawned four sequels so far), the fact that they are poor Southerners is motivation enough. Aside from the three cannibals, all the working-class and poor southerners are depicted as antagonists: the gas station attendant makes no effort to warn Chris about these killers (who he surely knows about), the truckers despise Chris because his hair is combed (?). Our heroes often make little quips – we sometimes call them ‘microaggressions’ – Carly joking that the next house might have a ‘white picket fence’ or that they need a ‘redneck world atlas.’ Wrong Turn demonstrates the filmmakers’ anxieties of the growing class divide in America, and not in a particularly smart way.
    • It can be argued that many horror movies have a problem with women – that is, many display violent misogyny, even as some of them seek to critique that very misogyny. (For many horror films, it’s a murky area.) But the subtext of Wrong Turn seems, distressingly, to tell women they need to shut their mouths. I wish I were making this up, but it’s hard to ignore: Francine is killed by razor wire through her mouth; Carly is killed by an axe through her open jaws; at multiple points in the movie, the male protagonists clasp their hands over the women’s mouths to make sure they don’t scream and alert the cannibal killers to their presence. (The men’s mouths, I will note, remain untouched.) Not to mention that Francine is killed shortly after performing oral sex. There are few movies with a greater oral fixation than Wrong Turn. I don’t honestly believe the filmmakers set out to make a horror film with this message in mind, but it’s certainly there. And certainly distasteful.
    • In addition to the other films I’ve mentioned, Wrong Turn also owes a debt to one of the most notorious X-Files episodes of all time, ‘Home,’ which also features an inbred family of killers, and which – while one of the scarier episodes of that show – also has little to say, other than that the world is a terrible place.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Truly terrible. Wrong Turn was – impressively – probably the most reprehensible horror movie I’ve watched yet, and it wasn’t even that scary. The movie aims for Texas Chain Saw Massacre-like depravity and brutality and delivers it, but the total lack of artfulness, the horrible score, and action-movie tropes and pacing make it something that fails to be as scary or meaningful as the movies it references. Instead, it just makes you want to take a shower afterward.

Francine (Lindy Booth), voguing on the West Virginian highway.

Francine (Lindy Booth), voguing on the West Virginian highway.

Best outfit: As much as I appreciate Scott’s sunflower necklace – is it a real sunflower or a medallion? – there’s not much else going on in his outfit that you couldn’t find in your average Dave Matthews cover band. Instead, it’s Francine’s purple shorts and zip-up striped belly top that wins the fashion award in Wrong Turn. It works remarkably well with her up-do.

Best line: ‘Say “mayday.”‘ – Carly, coaching Chris on what to do with the radio in the watchtower.

Best kill: Carly’s axe death was pretty neat. Mainly in that the top half of her head remains resting atop the blade, while her lower jaw and the rest of her body topples to the ground. (If that doesn’t make me sound like too much of a creep.)

Unexpected cameo: One of the three cannibals – the skinny guy with the bow and arrow – is, under all that laytex makeup, Julian Richings, who is in nearly every Canadian production ever made (Cube, Orphan Black), but is probably best known as Bucky Haight from Hard Core Logo. Another familiar Canadian face is Lindy Booth, who plays Francine, and is best known for her role in the Dawn of the Dead remake.

Unexpected lesson learned: To quote vocalist Beverly Sills, ‘There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.’ Unless you consider an inbred cannibal’s stomach a place worth going.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The internet tells me the three cannibal killers are named Three-Finger, Saw-Tooth, and One-Eye, which could comprise a really excellent hip-hop crew. Like a horror-themed version of TLC.

Next up: House (1986).

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Horror Movie Watch: Calvaire

Textbook case of improper car battery installation.

Textbook case of improper car battery installation.

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the fittingly named Belgian horror film Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004), directed by Fabrice Du Welz (Vinyan), and suggested by friend and frequent fellow horror-movie companion this October, Charmaine Pang (who you may remember from some earlier write-ups). She also watched the film with me, so watch for some guest appearances by her later.

As always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of Calvaire. I felt like I’d unlocked a special achievement, as the kind clerk there let me rent seven videos at once this most recent visit. (#Blessed) Oh, and for this write-up on Calvaire, I’m going to issue an all-purpose trigger warning: don’t read this review if you have any severe triggers. Sorry. (Think High Tension, but ickier.)

What happens:

Calvaire was one of these October horror movies I was most looking forward to. Mainly because whenever I saw someone who knew I was doing this project, they’d come up to me and say, ‘Holy smokes, you’re watching Calvaire!?’ (Or something like that, but with more colourful language.) The suggestion was that this Belgian movie I hadn’t heard much about was completely bonkers. They weren’t wrong.

Protagonist Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) readies himself for a performance in the opening shot, applying makeup and carefully combing his hair. The performance follows, with Stevens, in a James Brown-esque royal-purple cape emblazoned with his name, singing traditional love songs to assembled masses at a retirement home’s annual Christmas celebration. Ever the showman, he picks out one elderly woman, Mrs. Langhoff, and ends the song as if he were singing it just for her. Following the performance, Mrs. Langhoff congratulates and thanks Marc for his performance, saying his songs bring her back to her youth. Then she makes a indecent proposal, pressing Marc’s hand into her lap, and becomes incredibly embarrassed when he politely refuses. (She really beats herself up about it, calling herself terrible names.) Turns out Mrs. Langhoff isn’t the only one with eyes for Marc, the head nurse at the retirement home, Mademoiselle Vicky, asks if she can hug him before he leaves for his next gig, and the hug lasts maybe a little too long. ‘We’re going to miss you,’ she says, still not quite letting go of him.

In case you're still looking for a great Halloween costume.

In case you’re still looking for a great Halloween costume.

Eventually, Marc is able to free himself from his many admirers and get in his van to drive south for a big Christmas show. His van is a sweet ride: it’s also his living quarters, complete with bed and boss dreamcatcher hanging from the rear-view mirror. He encounters some dense fog, so he turns onto a side road when he sees a sign for the Bartel Inn. Soon it begins to pour and something jumps out in front of the van. Marc brakes hard, and the van stops working. In a jump scare, a desperate looking man appears at his driver-side window asking if he’s seen a dog. The man is Boris, and he says his dog, Bella, has run out into the woods and he can’t find her. Marc says he saw something – probably a dog – run across the road, but he’s not sure where it went. He asks Boris if he can direct him to the Bartel Inn. Boris reluctantly takes him to the Inn, but demands that Marc not make any noise, so that they don’t scare Bella away. (And he’s serious about it, he won’t let Marc talk even quietly.) Boris wakes up Mr. Bartel, the inn owner, saying, ‘I brought you someone,’ then scurries away. Mr. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), while a little grumpy, directs Marc to a room, saying he hasn’t had guests in quite a while, but the room is still clean.

Marc wakes up in the morning to the sound of a tractor towing his van to the inn. Mr. Bartel is elated to have a fellow performer staying at the inn. Bartel himself used to be a comedian, so he and Marc must have so much in common. Boris shows up, too, still looking for his dog and seeming a bit more erratic and disturbed than the night before. Bartel tells Marc he’ll call the local mechanic from his phone. He also asks to look at Marc’s cell phone (which isn’t getting service) and stares at it for an inordinately long time. Still, Bartel is friendly enough. He calls the mechanic and discovers he’s out on a call. But Bartel is handy with cars and offers to try to repair the van himself. Marc, reluctant to impose on the older man, at first refuses, but eventually relents. While Bartel’s working on the van, Marc suggests he’ll go to go for a walk. Mr. Bartel becomes concerned and warns Marc not to go down to the village. ‘They don’t understand performers like you and me,’ he says. When Marc tries to find out what, exactly, is so wrong with the villagers, Bartel becomes very emotional and won’t say. But he asks Marc to promise not to go to the village. Marc agrees and heads off.

While Marc is enjoying his constitutional, Bartel breaks into the back of Marc’s van and starts going through all the stuff inside: he goes through old family photos, fondles the stage costumes, even finds a stash of sexy photos Marc was given by the nurse from the retirement home. Oh, and did I say Marc was enjoying his constitutional? Because while on his walk, he comes across a disturbing scene: a bunch of men help and watch as a younger man has his first sexual experience with a pig. (The words ‘so tender’ are spoken.) And the pig really does not seem to be enjoying it, but given it wasn’t consensual, why would it? When Marc returns to the inn, Bartel tells him he’s had no luck and he’s called the mechanic again: he can’t come until tomorrow. Marc says he’ll try starting the van up himself, but Bartel begs him to trust him. The battery is dead.

The main feeling that threads through Calvaire is a love of music.

The main feeling that threads through Calvaire is a love of music.

Bartel makes Marc some dinner and talks about his wife, Gloria, who left him some time ago. She, like Marc, was also a singer, and the two of them ran the inn together. Since she left, his life hasn’t been the same, and business at the inn has gone downhill. Bartel works himself up thinking about his wife, claiming that he’s had no capacity for humour since. But he once was a great comedian, he says, showing Marc his award for comedy, and telling him one of his favourite jokes. (It involves dwarves playing soccer in red and blue jerseys.) Marc doesn’t find the joke overly funny, but throughout the movie he keeps a distance between him and the innkeeper. Bartel continues talking about his career as a performer, saying when Gloria left him he tried writing a manifesto about the importance of enthusiasm to humour. (Sounds like a great read.) Marc says he’d like to go to bed early, but Bartel insists he sing him a song beforehand. Marc half-assedly sings the first verse of the song he delighted the retirement home with, and when he’s done, Bartel turns a bit dark: ‘That’s it? I didn’t tell you half a joke.’ Marc stands up and continues, with more enthusiasm (right?), singing the song to its end. Bartel responds with the most sinister slow-clap in film history.

When Marc awakes in the morning, he can’t find Bartel. He does see Boris and asks where Bartel is, but Boris just wants to be left alone. Marc also checks the hood of the van to find the battery is completely missing. (There’s also really cool continuous camera shot through the windshield of the van that happens in this sequence.) He tries the phone, but discovers it isn’t even wired into the wall. Searching for Bartel, Marc goes into his private quarters and discovers his cell phone and the sexy photos on Bartel’s nightstand. That’s when Bartel walks in behind him, saying he’d just went to the village to get a battery. Marc, a bit concerned at this point, returns to his room to plan his next move, but discovers all his stuff has been taken. When he opens the wardrobe, all he finds are sundresses. (Uh oh.) That’s when he hears a racket outside. He runs to the window and finds Bartel smashing his van with a sledgehammer, then pouring gasoline all over it. Marc runs downstairs to stop him, and Bartel threatens him with the car battery: ‘Is this what you want? Why come back if you’re only going to leave again?!’ Bartel thinks Marc is his wife, Gloria! He hits Marc with the battery, knocking him out cold, and then sets the van on fire.

Bartel drags the unconscious Marc up his stairs, panting and heaving the whole way. ‘Do you even lift, Bartel?’ Charmaine quipped. Marc awakes, bloodied and tied to a chair, and clad in one of Gloria’s old dresses. Bartel roughly cuts off half of Marc’s hair, saying he’s protecting her by making her ugly. He then forces the bound Marc into bed and begins to cuddle with him. The days (?) that follow show Bartel forcing Marc into a sick domestic relationship: Bartel really believes that his wife Gloria has returned to him. One day, he brings Marc on a tractor ride so he can watch as Bartel chops down a Christmas tree. Marc sees an opportunity and runs for it, but – a few miles out – is caught in a wire rabbit snare. He lies out in the forest for hours until Boris comes upon him in the night, and – mistaking him for his missing dog, Bella – begins to pet Marc. In the morning, Boris leads Bartel to Marc, who frees him and dumps him in the tractor trailer. He advises Boris to be persistent and he’ll find his Bella again, just like he found his Gloria.

This is probably one of the worst ways to spend Christmas.

This is probably one of the worst ways to spend Christmas.

I should note that Marc Stevens’s performance is fairly amazing, and while he doesn’t scream and freak out as much as you might expect, the pained sounds and grimaces he makes are truly difficult to endure. As Bartel drives the tractor back to the inn, two villagers, busy nailing a hog carcass to a tree, spot him carting a captive down the road. When Bartel returns to the inn, he literally crucifies Marc, nailing him to a cross beam in his barn. The two villagers who saw the tractor secretly spy this as well, but flee when Bartel realizes he’s being watched and runs out of the barn with his rifle. Bartel realizes he might have to keep the villagers away from what he’s got going on up at the inn, so heads down the hill, passing dwarves in red jerseys (possibly a hallucination from Bartel’s clearly addled mind?), just like in his favourite joke.

Bartel walks into the local tavern with a shotgun (clearly, this region of Belgium has an ‘open carry’ policy) and demands a beer. The bartender doesn’t serve him at first, and instead serves another tavern patron two beers before he reluctantly gives Bartel his drink. Obviously, there’s some bad blood between Bartel and the villagers. ‘I’m here to warn you, no one will prevent me from being happy,’ Bartel shouts. He warns them if they come near his wife, he’ll kill them. One man, seemingly the patriarch of the other assembled men in the tavern (there are no women to be seen), stands up to him, telling him to shove his threats ‘up his ass.’ But Bartel leaves the tavern without incident. Once he leaves, though, the party really starts. One villager jumps on the 88 keys, pounding out an atonal polka tune, while two other terrifying villagers begin a weird penguin dance, facing their partner and shifting back and forth with arms outstretched at their sides. Soon, everyone in the tavern is doing this wild new dance craze.

Meanwhile, back at the inn, Bartel serves Marc some soup and talks about starting the inn up again. They have a surprise visit from Boris, who’s found Bella! Only thing is, Bella looks a lot like a calf. Bartel asks Boris to join them at dinner, suggesting it’s some Christmas miracle, all these companions reunited on the holidays. (‘Worst Christmas ever,’ Charmaine observed.) The three men at the dinner table start screaming and hooting and the camera spins wildly around the room. All this bizarre revelry stops, however, when a bang rings out and Boris is shot through the chest. Bartel grabs his rifle and knocks out the lights. Marc groans for help in his hoarse voice, but Bartel pistol-whips him with the rifle. (Can you pistol-whip with a rifle?) Anyway, a firefight soon breaks out. The villagers are outside, with a pig (Lars) on a leash like an attack dog. The villagers fire into the inn, and Bartel shoots back at them. Marc crawls along the floor, picks up Bartel’s heavy comedy award, and slowly makes his way to his captor. Just as Marc is about to brain him with the award, Bartel is shot and falls to the floor.

Unfortunately, the villagers aren’t the heroes of this film. First things first, they break in with their hunting pig and retrieve their calf. Then they help Marc to his feet and – you guessed it – demand a song at shotgun-point. Marc, who can barely speak at this stage in his torment, does his best, but maybe he’s just not in a singing mood. The villagers share Bartel’s delusion that Marc is Gloria, too. (Gloria made quite an impression on this awful Belgian village.) As you dreaded, but probably suspected would happen, they start gang-raping Marc. One of the villagers puts Boris, sputtering on the floor, out of his misery. However, they don’t realize Bartel is still alive and he shoots at them. In the commotion, Marc is able to escape and he runs into the night. The villagers promptly shoot Bartel to death, then command Lars, the pig, to ‘find the slut.’

Marc runs through the night and into the morning, through a swampy Belgian landscape that looks like despair feels. He starts to flag, and when he looks up, sees a corpse crucified on a tall cross. (I thought this was a real corpse, but the internet tells me it’s just a grim tombstone.) He crosses a river and eventually, all the villagers give up save one older man – the older man who argued with Bartel in the tavern. He continues to pursue Marc, and nearly catches up with him. But just as he does, he steps right into a bog or sinkhole and begins to sink into the ground. He begs for Gloria’s help. Marc crawls back to him and watches him sink. With his dying words, the man begs Gloria to say that she loved him. Marc, for some reason, obliges, saying he did love him. The mud completely submerges his pursuer.

I'd like to help you, friend, but my hands are tied. (Get it?)

I’d like to help you, friend, but my hands are tied. (Get it?)

Takeaway points:

    • At one point in my notes, I wrote this is the most misogynist film that features almost no women. But the wording isn’t right: rather, it’s the film that’s most about misogyny that somehow manages to have nearly no women in it. During the tavern sequence, Charmaine noted there were no women in the village. But really, if you were a woman, would you want to live in this village? In any event, Bartel’s motivation for the torment he puts Marc through is to punish and control his wife, Gloria, who (it is suggested) had an affair and left him. (We can also speculate that Gloria may not have left him and was perhaps killed when she tried to.) And so, Bartel confines Marc, makes him ugly so no other men will look at him, beats him when he tries to leave. The other villagers are no better, treating ‘Gloria’ as a sex doll once they rescue her, calling her a slut, forcing her to sing (akin to when creeps on the street tell women to smile). The scene of the villagers nailing the carcass of the pig (who was their ‘lover,’ if I can be so crass) to a tree serves as a mirror of Bartel nailing Marc to his barn’s crossbeam. This is how these men treat their women. And I think it’s clever and maybe even politically progressive that Du Welz shows this misogyny in a truly naked fashion, but through torments suffered by a man. This choice removes the creepy titillation that seeps into lesser films of the same ‘torture porn’ variety, where women suffer the abuse. It forces male viewers to confront their own misogyny while completely avoiding in any actual on-screen torture of women, which is something of an astonishing feat for horror.
    • Along those same lines, Bartel is like a case study in abuser dynamics. Even before Bartel ties Marc up, the red flags are evident: he doesn’t allow Marc to use the telephone himself; he tries to restrict him geographically; he looks through his personal items when Marc is gone; when confronted with questions he becomes emotional and acts like Marc is the mean one; he forces Marc to make promises and asks him to trust him based on faith alone. It’s incredible how many tactics Bartel practices that are straight out of an abusive partner’s handbook. This also is mirrored in Marc’s responses to his imprisonment. Some reviewers and critics have wondered why Marc so quickly ‘submits’ to his capture, though I didn’t see any real submission. Marc never consents to his ordeal, nor does he ever seem anything but completely beaten. It’s similar to people who ask women who have been sexually assaulted or beaten why they didn’t fight back or why they don’t leave their abusive partners. Many times, it’s about fear, intimidation, and survival.
    • The film’s title has a double-meaning, in that it’s quite literally an ordeal, but Calvaire also references (in French) Cavalry, the hill Jesus was crucified on. That second meaning is explicitly referenced at least a couple times within the movie. So, is Marc a Christ-like figure? Some reviewers complain he’s an unsympathetic character, and that Bartel is much more compelling and relatable. To which I say, ‘gross,’ but also, why should Marc be charming? Like Christ in his final days, he refuses to do what the huddled masses want him to do – he is less than enthusiastic about putting on a dog-and-pony show, whether that show take the form of singing love songs or (in Christ’s case) turning water into wine. And as a result, he suffers untold torments. (Maybe his torments are more Job-like.) In any event, once he escapes, he becomes even more Christ-like. When the man sinks in the bog, he refuses to help save him or ease his suffering by shooting him, but he does say he loves the dying sinner. Who does that remind you of?
    • There’s a lot to say about the depiction of the indigent rural Belgian villagers in Calvaire, but I’m going to save it for my next write-up, on Wrong Turn, which has similar problems in representing the rural poor, and is a much less interesting movie.
    • The movie has no score to speak of, but there’s no shortage of music that comes about as part of the story. Marc is often singing songs – sometimes under pleasant circumstances, sometimes in less-than-pleasant ones. Plus, there’s that surreal song-and-dance number in the tavern. Add that to plot similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar, and I think there’s a strong case for a stage production of Calvaire: The Musical!
    • As Charmaine astutely pointed out, Calvaire is also a Christmas movie. And Marc experiences a Christmas even worse than the one Phoebe Cates’s character describes in Gremlins. So you can add Calvaire to Die Hard and Black Christmas on your list of unusual holiday films.
    • This is, with The Brood and Don’t Look Now, the third horror movie I’ve viewed in October to prominently feature dwarves in red hooded jackets.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: It was terrifying. If Charmaine hadn’t been in the room with me, I’d probably have had my second nightmare of the month.

You can see why the ladies provide him with sexy photos when he wears that turtleneck.

You can see why the ladies provide him with sexy photos when he wears that turtleneck.

Best outfit: Marc Stevens spends much of his pre-ordeal in one of the nicest white turtleneck sweaters I’ve ever seen. It’s just too bad it ends up covered with blood after Bartel smashes his face with a car battery. This being the Belgian countryside in winter, there are a lot of turtlenecks in effect here: it’s Turtleneck City. And though I don’t think it was my favourite look, Marc – with half his head shorn, combat boots, and an old sundress – is the spitting image of a ’90s-era riot grrl.

Best line: ‘It sure is a beautiful region.’ – Marc, when asked how he enjoyed his walk, a walk that included a surprise appearance of pig rape.

Best kill: Who’d have suspected some winter quicksand would save our protagonist? Not me. I thought quicksand went out with Romancing the Stone. It was mildly satisfying to see one of our villains slowly sink into the hostile Belgian landscape.

Unexpected cameo: The film’s final pursuer – the guy who ends up drowning in a bog – is Philippe Nahon, who was also the truck driver / killer in one of the other most disturbing horror movies I’ve watched this month, High Tension! (I guess he’s just got one of those faces.)

Unexpected lesson learned: As if it ever needed to be said: never trust a male comedian.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Enthusiasm! (with an exclamation mark). This would also be my choice for an alternate movie title.)

Next up: Wrong Turn (2003).

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Horror Movie Watch: Pulse

'Sorry, computer ghost, but I don't have a square to spare.' – Pulse meets Seinfeld

‘Sorry, computer ghost, but I don’t have a square to spare.’ – Pulse meets Seinfeld

This October, I’m attempting an ill-advised viewing of (at least) thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a day, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film is the Internet-Age thriller Pulse (2006), directed by Jim Sonzero (who has really only otherwise directed video games like Resident Evil 5 and Killzone 3), and suggested by friend, fellow Book City staffer and movie buff, Philip Bardach, who previously suggested Horror Movie Watch titles, The Brood and The Strangers (though I’m just realizing now he meant the original Japanese version … oops.)

As always, a special thanks to Queen Video for providing me with the DVD of Pulse – they even provided it to me for free when I accidentally rented an older movie of the same name by accident. I sat through about ten minutes of this other Pulse – a horror movie that stars a very young Matthew and Joey Lawrence (whoa!) – thinking it looked like it was from the 1980s before I realized I was watching the wrong Pulse. I assume if you’re reading these lengthy yet glib write-ups of horror movies, you have a high tolerance for terrible things, but I shall issue a trigger warning here for suicide and cat starvation (really).

What happens:

You’d think, given I’m one of the biggest Veronica Mars fans in the Greater Toronto Area, I might have seen Pulse before, it being one of Kristen Bell’s earlier post-VM acting roles. However, this is not the case. From the trailers, it always seemed like some sort of mash-up of The Net and The Ring – isn’t it funny how those both look like titles for sports movies – and, after viewing it, that’s actually a pretty accurate description. And like The Ring, it is also based on an earlier Japanese horror film named Kairo.

Pulse’s opening title sequence – a clear predecessor to that of the TV series Person of Interest – appears over images of cell phones, PDAs, wireless towers, and laptops, so the audience knows right away: this movie is about modern technology. The film opens on a paranoid young man briskly walking through a university campus, seemingly suspicious of all the students on their phones. He enters a building, and we learn – from their unbelievably high-tech security checkpoint – his name is Josh Ockmann. He takes the elevator down to the library, where very few of the lights appear to be working. (All the school’s money went into that security identification system, I guess.) He weaves through the stacks, calling out for a ‘Ziegler,’ until he notices books dropping from a shelf of their own volition. He moves in to investigate the gap between the books where this appears to be happening, and some sort of bald-headed ghost figure leaps out and appears to suck the soul out of his face.

Later, in a better-lit pub, four friends hang out, largely – as the young people are nowadays – glued to their phones. Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) complains when friend Tim texts her to ask for a dance when she’s literally across the table from him, in a damning critique (let’s say) of personal relations in the Internet Age. Mattie, in an on-again, off-again relationship with Josh, complains to her friends (a group that also includes Stone and her roommate Izzy) that they’ve mostly been reduced to text messaging. (I imagine things will get worse now that he has no soul.) She returns to her apartment and discovers a cryptic message from Josh on her landline, which is something college students had in 2006. She calls him back, but no one answers. The next morning, Mattie wakes up early and prepares for her day, an event I only mention because it’s filmed exactly like a Noxzema commercial. In her psychology class, the professor lectures on cyber-stalking (just in case you wondered if this move is, indeed, about the internet), and Mattie and Izzy meet Stone in the quad as he shows off some of his latest wares. Josh and Stone were something of internet entrepreneurs, selling passwords to various websites (largely pornographic ones). Yet Josh is not around to celebrate in their latest success.

Prelude to a soul-sucking.

Prelude to a soul-sucking.

Fed up with Josh’s radio silence, Mattie visits his apartment. When no one answers the door, she uses his hidden spare key, resting on the doorframe. Inside the apartment she finds rotten food and signs of decay. While looking around, Josh – who previously looked like part of the furniture – rises from his chair and greets Mattie. He speaks and looks a lot like a zombie: his skin is greyish and – most alarmingly – it looks like prominent black veins or bruises have sprung up all over his skin. After a few monosyllabic responses, he heads into his bedroom and asks Mattie to wait outside. She hears yowls and opens Josh’s closet to find his cat in the late stages of starvation (and it’s really unpleasant). Suddenly, she hears a commotion and runs to Josh’s bedroom, where he’s hanged himself from the ceiling fan with an Ethernet cable. (Symbolism!)

Mattie visits a therapist to talk about Josh’s suicide, and the conversation turns heated. (Veronica Mars says ‘fuck,’ you guys.) Mattie angrily blames herself: she should have seen the signs in Josh’s strange behaviour. Later, she chats on ICQ with her circle of friends and they’re baffled when the deceased Josh seemingly enters the conversation, typing ‘HELP ME’ over and over again. Stone and Tim try to reassure Mattie that it was probably just a virus, and Josh’s computer needs to be turned off to prevent this from happening again. (Invariably, it’s the boys in Pulse who are the computer experts.) Mattie asks if one of them will power down Josh’s computer, as she can’t visit his apartment again. Stone takes up the challenge, entering Josh’s death apartment through the transom in a display of some slow-motion parkour. He doesn’t find a computer in Josh’s apartment, though; just burn marks where it used to sit. While inside, he hears muffled yells, so he investigates Josh’s bedroom. The bedroom is, strangely, covered in red duct tape, but Stone can find no source of the weird sounds. He looks in the bathroom, and when he steps out, he realizes the bedroom door has mysteriously shut. Then a ghostly figure appears and creeps toward him, stuttering like a VHS tape with bad tracking. The thing grabs him and sucks the soul right out of his face.

Stone begins to exhibit the same symptoms as Josh did: he stops coming to class and social events, he doesn’t answer his phone. When Mattie eventually reaches him on the phone he (a) mistakes her for his sometime hook-up partner Izzy, and (b) says he didn’t find a computer or anything of any note in Josh’s apartment. But when he hangs up, he tearfully checks his body and finds the black veins are spreading. Despite her dread at revisiting the place where she saw her boyfriend kill himself, Mattie goes back to the apartment. She’s met at the door by the landlady, who has since renovated the place (in an impressively short amount of time). Noting that Josh owed her a couple months’ rent, she says she sold the computer, but Mattie is able to get the address of the man she sold it to.

When we first meet the computer purchaser, Dexter McCarthy (Ian Somerhalder), he’s wearing a tank top and fixing his car, so we know he’s into alpha male stuff. Mattie straight-up accuses him of spamming her dead boyfriend’s email list, but Dexter reveals he hasn’t even hooked up the computer yet: it’s still in the trunk of his car. Intrigued by this mystery, he sets up the computer in his industrial-looking apartment that evening, and instead of Windows chime, the screen lights up with a question: Would you like to see a ghost? Instead of waiting for him to answer, the computer begins showing him eerie footage from strangers’ webcams, culminating in the webcam suicide of one of these mystery people. Back at the university, Mattie finds a present in her locker from the deceased Josh (college students have lockers?): several rolls of red duct tape and a handwritten message: It keeps them out. I don’t know why.

The television news starts to report on a citywide ‘suicide epidemic,’ which seems 100% like a thing that would never be reported upon. Dexter gets back in touch with Mattie to show her what Josh’s old computer is doing. One recent addition is there appear to be ghosts just barely visible within the footage now. His theory is that Josh had somehow hacked all these strangers’ webcams and was selling the video, and his guilt led him to kill himself. Mattie refuses to believe and begs Dexter to delete Josh’s hard drive. Only one problem: the computer won’t allow it. Strange phenomena continue: Mattie’s psychology professor attempts to kill himself by walking in front of a city bus, someone else (or possibly the psych prof again) jumps off a water tower at the campus, and Mattie starts seeing ghostly digitized figures – like Powder viewed on a Sega Dreamcast – everywhere: in windows, reflective surfaces, and all her nightmares. Her psychologist isn’t convinced there’s anything to worry about, despite the fact attendance in class is at an all-time low: it’s just a run-of-the-mill suicide epidemic compounded with some hallucinations. But when Mattie has a close encounter with a shadowy internet ghost in a public washroom, she knows it’s real.

Rhyming orange will soon be the least of your problems, Mattie Webber.

Rhyming orange will soon be the least of your problems, Mattie Webber.

Then Tim, while instant messaging, gets the ‘Want to See A Ghost?’ treatment and one of the webcam feeds he sees is of a despondent Stone. He runs to check on his friend, who is half embedded into his apartment wall by that cloudy blackness by the time he arrives, and is about to free part of his body using a knife. Before he has the chance, he’s sucked into the wall and turned into a radiation shadow. Tim immediately rushes home and begins to cover his windows and door with a roll of red duct tape. But it’s not enough – he hears something at the door and when he lifts the red tape from the peephole, a ghost thing smashes through it (probably infecting him). Around the same time, the psychologist gets the same message and sees the webcam of his daughter (I think?). He has her picture on his desk, so its either his daughter or an inappropriately college-aged girlfriend. Mattie is not immune from this webcam invasion: her computer turns on in the middle of the night to show disturbing webcam images (including those of Stone). She unplugs the Ethernet and unplugs the computer, but the printer still manages to print out a series of letter-sized images that, when placed together, create a shadowy face.

This final straw leads Mattie to return to Dexter, who has been doing a bunch of research on Josh’s computer. Apparently, Josh had hacked into some guy named Ziegler’s hard drive and it unleashed something that can’t be stopped. Josh left a series of video diary entries (or vlogs?) on his computer chronicling his attempt to contact Ziegler and his struggle to stop it, along with his eventual decline. Along the way, he manages to develop a virus that might defeat these things. Still, Dexter doesn’t think this has anything to do with the suicides. He thinks Josh was just on a hacker power trip, probably because he can’t not piss on Josh’s memory because he’s in love with Mattie or something.

Izzy, the last of the friends to not have ‘computer problems,’ gets the ghost message and before long, in perhaps the scariest scene of the movie, she’s surprised in the laundry room as a spider-version of those ghost men leaps out of a washer and vacuums out Izzy’s soul. That night, Dexter, continuing his research, finds an address for Ziegler and realizes where Josh hid a flashdrive with the virus on it. He also encounters the digital ghosts, and starts red-taping everything immediately. By this point, the computer virus is considered a countrywide pandemic. Mattie returns home to discover Izzy has been infected, half-covered in black veins or bruises or whatever. ‘I want to die, but I’m too afraid to do it,’ she says. Mattie calls 911, but no one is there. (The call centre workers have all turned to black ash.) Moments later, Izzy dissolves.

Mattie meets up with Dexter again and they drive like stock-car racers to Ziegler’s apartment. On the way, they’re sideswiped by a car whose driver has been reduced to a black stain in the seat. Their trip to the apartment is like a journey through an apocalyptic hellscape: automobiles are overturned everywhere, gangs of scared people brandish guns and tell them to keep to the dead zones where there are no computers and cell phones to stay safe. They bust their way into Ziegler’s, where he’s fashioned a red room to rival Christian Grey’s: red tape everywhere. Ziegler, a young hacker, leaps out of his closet (which he’s also covered in red tape) and screams at Mattie and Dexter that they’ll let them in. Exposition ensues: Ziegler, as part of a telecom project, was attempting to discover new bandwidths. In so doing, he found one, but then these wraiths came through. They found red utility tape was the only thing that blocks their transmission, like sunglasses with ultraviolet rays, I suppose. Ziegler, who really chews the scenery, continues: if they catch you, they make you a hollow shell of yourself and soon you’re covered with black bruises and eventually you turn to ash. They travel through cell phones PDAs, computers – they can’t be stopped. Dexter argues they need to upload the handy virus on his flash drive and bring down the system. Unfortunately, Ziegler’s server is in a ‘non-optimal place’: the basement.

Mattie and Dexter brave the hallway, but within moments are surrounded by the computer wraiths: bald men, women, little kids. There are so many varieties of these things! Dexter tries to distract the ghosts as Mattie runs to the elevator. Once she reaches the basement, she’s confronted by a wraith and plunges into a nightmare, pulled in all directions by those creatures. When she awakes, the ghost thing is upon her, just about to suck out her soul until Dexter intervenes and drags Mattie away. Dexter uploads the virus, the computer screen flickers, and the ghost guy seems to dissipate. Still, better safe than sorry, so they flee the building just as a plane crashes in a fiery blaze nearby. They hijack a truck and drive down the abandoned highway, holding hands for moral support.

That night, our sort-of couple sleeps in the truck at the side of the highway. Mattie is awakened by an emergency radio transmission from the military, announcing that survivors should proceed to safe areas, away from communications technology, and they should dispose of all phones and portable computers beforehand. Mattie panics: her cell phone is on the dashboard! Moments later, a computer wraith smashes the window and reaches into the truck. Dexter wakes and floors it, and the truck weaves all over the road, trying to shake the ghost on its roof. Eventually, like Taylor Swift, they shake it off the exact moment they fall out of cell phone range. The final shot of the movie shows a derelict city that the two leave behind, as Mattie narrates that life is different now: the cities belong to the monsters while the remaining humans live in new, low-tech settlements. (What?)

The Veronica Mars / Vampire Diaries crossover that never happened.

The Veronica Mars / Vampire Diaries crossover that never happened. 

Takeaway points:

    • Though I don’t think Pulse is a strong horror movie overall, I found its portrayal of suicide intriguing and fairly truthful. In the confines of the narrative, these suicides are the desperate last attempt at saving some sense of self in the face of a bodily invasion. But the language surrounding the infections that these computer wraiths cause is the language of clinical depression. ‘I can’t take it. I can’t go on. I feel there’s no me anymore,’ Josh says in his video diary. Later, Zielger describes the feeling like, ‘You don’t want to talk, you don’t want to move. You’re a shell.’ And this suicidal depression is transmitted through the computer. Though the movie predates the real rise of social media, it does prophesy the depression, the loneliness, the fear of missing out (FOMO) that sometimes comes with continual internet usage. Though its effects have yet to be fully understood, there is at least anecdotal evidence of repeated social media use leading to increased loneliness and social isolation. (Obviously, social media has its mental health benefits, as well.) As Mattie says in her final voiceover, ‘The things that were supposed to connect us to each other, instead connected us to forces we could never have imagined.’ In Pulse, are the real ghosts lonelinesss? Are all horror movies about loneliness? Am I just lonely?
    • What’s strangest is that a movie so much about computers seems to feature so little computing. I mean, I guess Josh and Ziegler are ‘hackers,’ but most of movie barely features a computer screen and the villains seem completely divorced from the digital world. (Sure, they’re a bit pixellated, but they don’t even, like, emerge from the computer screens or phones or anything.) Pulse features a little instant messaging, but you literally do not see a single website on screen. The movie also suffers a bit from CSI Syndrome, where no one turns the lights on for any reason whatsoever. Even if there are computer ghosts stalking them at every corner.
    • Throughout the movie, Mattie frequently calls her mother, who never ever picks up the telephone. It’s unclear if we’re supposed to think (a) Mattie’s mother has already been infected by the computer ghosts and is but a hollow shell of her former self, or (b) Mattie and her mother have a troubled relationship. Either way, it seems like a cautionary tale cooked up by telemarketers to pick up one’s phone, lest one miss the memo that the world is ending in some sort of technological apocalypse.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: I hate to be a naysayer, but it’s pretty terrible: a watered-down tech-forward version of The Ring that really doesn’t know how to end. The monsters are pretty scary, but it’s a bit too self-consciously grimy and too over-reliant on that cobalt blue photo filter to give me nightmares.

Sgt. Izzy, reporting for duty.

Sgt. Izzy, reporting for duty.

Best outfit: While I was fond of Mattie’s ‘Nothing Rhymes with Orange’ novelty tank top, you can’t beat the conviction with which Izzy wears both an ‘Army’ T-shirt and camouflaged ball cap (with pouches!) while attending liberal arts college.

Best line: ‘We can never go back. The cities are theirs now.’ – Mattie, narrating the real downer of a conclusion to the movie.

Best kill: That was a dazzling swan dive off a tall water tower, and while I’d like to consider this anonymous suicide the Greg Louganis of Pulse‘s deaths, the inherent symbolism of the young man hanging himself with an Ethernet cable is just too rich a symbol to ignore.

Unexpected cameo: Pulse is lousy with unexpected cameos! Izzy is portrayed by short-lived singing superstar Christina ‘Dip It Low‘ Milian. (You remember that song, where falling on your back became a dance move.) Friend Tim is Samm Levine, a.k.a. Neal Schweiber from Freaks and Geeks. And, astonishingly, the landlady is played by Octavia Spencer! Maybe best of all is that the psych professor is played by Zach Grenier, better known as David Lee on The Good Wife.

Unexpected lesson learned: The man with a gray ponytail ranting in a coffee shop about the end of the world is almost certainly right.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Webcam Suicide

Next up: Calvaire (2004).

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