Crash Reports: Real Life Horror

As a genre, horror is escapism, but is it all the time?

No.

For fans of the genre, we can’t help but often wonder about the supernatural goings-on in most tales. After all, how many horror geeks would love to be a vampire? I sure would. Not to feed on the poor or innocent, but to chow down on the creeps and criminals – murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and politicians. They’d all be on my menu. But the personal, more selfish element is to be immortal. To never die, and to relish in the history of the world as it continually unfolds – for all time.

But we will die. All of us. At one point, we will shed our mortal coil, and… Well, we have no clue what happens next. Religions the world over have survived on that fear, and many sell the notion of another Universe beyond the physical one in which we currently reside. The idea that there may be nothing upon death freaks us out, and we may avoid such a topic altogether to distance ourselves from any sort of panic. Others believe in resurrection, whether to come back as an insect, animal, another human, alien, or maybe even a star. But to come back, to live again, brings relief.

Many who don’t indulge in horror may think fans are a bit crazed. I mean, why the hell do we want to revel in a zombie apocalypse, or to see crazed monsters tear up the countryside? Maybe that’s because in horror the story’s heroes have a chance to fight back, to take a stand, to thwart that eternal goodnight. And even if said hero fails to win against the monster, against possession, against a wily demon, at least he or she had the chance to stand tall and fight the good fight. Most of us will simply perish from natural causes or an accident, and won’t have the ability to go down swinging.

Currently, my mother is dying from the nightmare of Parkinson’s disease – something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. She’s lived a good life, after a very hard and abusive childhood. She raised my siblings and I as best she could, and allowed us all to pursue our goals and dreams with a tremendous cheer, even when she didn’t grasp why on Earth my brother wanted to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, why my sister would take a chance on being a fine artist, and why I’d risk financial success by becoming a writer instead of sticking with marketing.

My mother’s mantra, “Take each day as it comes”, is winding down for her. She wants to die, to be with my wonderful and inspiring father in the netherworld, but right now, she’s afraid to let go. My mom, the matriarch for her entire family, clings to life though she can’t walk or sit up, though she can’t engage in conversation or even feed herself. Yes, it’s hard to see a once strong woman appear so weak and tired and helpless.

Rest assured, when Netflix sends along the next horror, I’ll root for that hero to stand tall, and get their best shots in against an insurmountable foe from another planet, another realm, or even from the new small town they moved into.

As horror fans, we question what comes next after life, and we sometimes find solace in those movies, mostly ghost stories, that are based on true events, such as THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (2009) or AUDREY ROSE (1977), or what have you. When horror shines its black light on the spiritual, we know there’s something beyond the physical. Or at least we hope so.

When my Mom finally passes on, I hope she’s reunited with my father, her knight in shining armor. Their love was so strong, and they were so committed to each other, that if there isn’t a heaven, or “another place” to flourish, I certainly hope their passion will create one for all of us.

Crash Analysis: Do Horror and Television Really Work Together?

The much anticipated “Bates Motel” on A&E garnered an audience of three million – the  highest ever for the channel. Thanks to the legendary success of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), the epic favorite still looms large in the American psyche, so why not tune in? Personally, I didn’t care until I heard that the phenomenal Vera Farmiga would take the lead as the “beloved” mother, and Nestor Carbonell as the sheriff.

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting much due to one major factor: Norman Bates’ world is too small. Thumbing his nose at American suburbia, Hitchcock showed the impossibility and despair of “finding one’s own island” in the milieu of our fabricated neighborhoods. Marion (Janet Leigh) would never find her elusive freedom, especially on Norman’s bubble of an island of his own psychotic making.

To develop a television show around a world in microcosm would prove difficult. The characters would be few, and there couldn’t be a murder each week due to small town slim pickin’s. From the get go in “Bates Motel”, Norman (played well by Freddie Highmore) discovers his dead father, with the clear indication that mommy dearest had bludgeoned the man and went off to shower. It’s not surprising the shower element made itself so prominent in the beginning, and one can only surmise that Norman will discover at some point the truth of his father’s demise.

Granted, Norma Bates (Farmiga) is a complex character with self-righteous notions, and a passive-aggressive nature that will keep her son Norman confused and ultimately at the breaking point. For Norman, he’s a good kid lost in a sea of mental chaos, with an internal rage that will only become darker and erupt in a tsunami of murderous proportions. The good news is that the complexity of character adds depth to the overall story, but how can we watch two people self-destruct for years on end? Maybe this is why the show’s creators will introduce another Bates, a brother, in the upcoming episode. (I’m curious as to their approach to this conundrum: Norman hates blood, as if a phobia, yet somehow manages to engage in taxidermy.)

The worst part about the production was the trite and cliché ridden bathroom scene, which was completely devoid of suspense. How many times have we seen a dead body stuffed in a tub while someone hit the toilet or washed up in the sink? Please.

But this small world leads to the same problem that plagues “The Walking Dead” – it’s a soap opera first, and a horror second.

In the opening of “The Walking Dead”, many were thrilled to see Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) shoot a young zombie girl between the eyes and take her out. I instantly fell in love, and thought the series would be gritty as well as relentless. After all, the previews, comprised of phenomenal special effects proved to be too riveting to ignore. In short order, however, this little band of human survivors turned out to be a whiny crew from a bad daytime soap. They indulged in lengthy tear-stained monologues while a zombie shambled along in the background on occasion. Sigh. If only bigoted yet gutsy zombie killer Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) would leave the cry baby group and its bickering, and head out on his own with crossbow at the ready, we’d definitely have something worth watching.

Reedus’s character is the only complex one in the bunch. But that’s not the worst of “The Walking Dead”: the writing’s awful. Regardless of the beloved comic books from Robert Kirkman, and artists Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, the show has major issues. I had trudged through the first season, and laughed at the big finale: Letting a grenade blow in a closed in building would leave one deaf. And to be just yards away from the CDC when it explodes in grand fashion would have shattered the vehicles’ windows. Even so, I wanted to love the show, to finally embrace a horror television series with grade A special makeup effects, and watched the first episode of season two. To have Christ on his cross, a Roman Catholic image, in a Baptist church is ludicrous – and to have two separate characters have some special time with the Christ figure to unload their woes is extremely weak.

I bailed on the soap, and all its human tears.

And although I will give “Bates Motel” another shot or two, I know the soapiness of it all will leave me no choice but to change the channel. One wonders if the forthcoming “Hannibal” series will be any better.

As for horror and television, Zacherle, Vampira, Elvira and other ghostly hosts led the way to campy frights over the decades, and even a claymation six-fingered hand on WPIX forewarned us of the willies to come with “Chiller” (See the intro here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok6uzndOmPA). We’ve had horror mixed with over-the-top comedy in “The Munsters”, “The Addams Family”, and even “Scooby Doo”. Rod Serling delivered some horrific nuggets with “Night Gallery” and “The Twilight Zone”. And the stand alone episodes of series seemed to work extremely well, from Canada’s “Tales from the Dark Side”, to cable’s tongue-in-cheek “Tales from the Crypt”, “The Hitchhiker”, and maybe the best, though sometimes disappointing showcase, “Masters of Horror”. Holy Hell, we even had a bona fide soap opera with the long-lived “Dark Shadows” from the UK. Though maybe even more diehard fans indulge in “Supernatural”, “Veronica Mars”, “American Horror Story”, Boris Karloff’s “Thriller”, and “True Blood” – to name but a few. As for mini-series, Stephen King’s stories led the charge, though most were long-winded and ultimately disappointing, such as “It”, “The Stand”, and “The Langoliers”, though back in the day, “Salem’s Lot” left me clinging to the walls and still has quite a following.

From all my years of watching far too much television, here’s the best horror related shows the boob tube ever offered:

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)

Comedic – sure. Dramatic – on a grand scale. Each episode of Whedon’s fantastic “Buffy” had more suspense and crises than any fullblown episode of “ER”, “Chicago Hope” or what have you. Thanks to the ever-changing stories and idiosyncratic characters, viewers were caught in a whirlwind of post teen angst and mayhem that kept them riveted for years.

“Angel” (1999-2004)

The most successful television spinoff of all time? This series incorporated more of a serious, brooding tone than “Buffy”, but once again, Whedon worked his magic in delivering strong characters and a host of storylines to keep viewers tuning in.

“Friday the 13th: The Series” (1987-1990)

Yes, everyone hated the name of this one from Canada, but the premise amazed: a curio shop of cursed items that our little group of heroes had to collect from very misinformed buyers. Some episodes lacked luster, but many viewers fell in love with Robey as the female lead, and kept watching. The show was cool, violent, and was dark enough to satisfy true horror fans.

“She-Wolf of London” (1990-1991)

Only twenty fun episodes exist, but the character interactions between werewolf (Kate Hodge) and doctor (Neil Dickson) made it all worthwhile. The problem had to do with the UK producers. When they dropped out, filming moved to Los Angeles, and the entire project disintegrated.

“Twin Peaks” (1990-1991)

David Lynch served up small town quirkiness on a Salvador Dali inspired platter. The bizarro show and its sideshow characters, rocked viewers’ minds with the refrain: Who killed Laura Palmer? As for horror, there are some scares in the show that rival even the best films in the genre – especially when Frank Silva came on screen.

My favorite “could have been a contender” series, was the very short-lived “Brimstone” (1998-1999). Only lucky number thirteen episodes, the series’ creators presented a wonderful project that wasn’t ready enough for the small screen. Peter Horton played Ezekiel Stone, a detective banished to Hell after joyfully murdering the guy who had killed his wife. But 113 souls had escaped from that dark realm, and the Devil (John Glover) gave Stone the job to bring them all back. Once his mission’s over, he could rejoin his wife in Heaven. Regardless of the clunky start and under-developed stories, the interchange between Horton and Glover is not to be missed. In fact, Glover plays one of the greatest Devils of all times, and his performance alone proves fascinating.

So where does that leave us?

We’ve had some spooky fun over the years, but once the comedy element is extracted, we’re left with either a usually hokey gorefest, or something that tries to be edgy – or dramatic soap operas that try way too hard. It’s as if series developers want audiences to see that horror is much more than typical “genre” fair. That’s perfectly fine, and I’m all for it, but “Bates Motel” and “The Walking Dead” need to stop with the sappy, melodramatic soapiness. Today’s producers should look at David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” (and Angelo Badalamenti’s stellar score), Whedon’s masterful “Buffy” and “Angel” series, and the story depth associated with the best of “The Twilight Zone”. Otherwise, we’ll be left with shows that look good, incorporate wonderful actors, but offer nothing of substance beyond pools of blood mixed with tears.

Crash Analysis: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Homewreaking disappointment 

Teen discovers next door neighbor kid’s messed in the head

Oren Peli’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) rocked theatres, and brought found footage to a new level. Afterward, the guy who spent $15,000 on his dream feature earned an office at Paramount, and his franchise was born. Sadly, the second installment took a disappointing dive, only to have the series resurrected with the third venture. But the fourth crashed and burned.

Whatever magic directors Joost and Schulman had captured for the third venture, they relinquished all momentum in creating PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4. In the feature, teen Alex (Kathryn Newton) discovers some weird goings-on thanks to a creepy neighborhood boy. When her family takes him in because his mother ends up in the hospital for two weeks, he brings hell into the home.

Peli worked hard to conjure a “real world” scenario for the first three films, but screenwriter Christopher Landon threw that away as soon as the family took in the neighbor boy. After all, California’s division of Youth and Family Services would have taken the child. This lack of logic steered the story into the dumpster, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 instantly lost any chance of coming off as genuine.

Granted, there was a scare or two, but one could easily see where the train’s headed before the crash. Predictability killed any sense of suspense. Though Newton and Matt Shively (who played Ben) did their damnedest, their efforts proved futile against such a lackluster tale that had lost all credibility. The saddest element to the production, however, was the acting duo of Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee. They portrayed Alex’s parents in the movie, and were a married couple in real life. But Dunham died of a heart attack on September 14 before the film hit theatres.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 is supposedly on the way, but there isn’t a script yet or a director. And that spells more trouble for the franchise. Although the third film in the series proved to be one of the best installments for a horror movie conglomeration, we may be witnessing the death of the entire project – unless Peli and company can once again recapture that supernatural magic.

Crash Analysis: SLEEP TIGHT (Spain, 2011)

Smart and creepy, with an ending to make your skin crawl url

Depressed loner with keys to everyone’s apartment

Director Jaume Balaguero originally rocked the horror world with his found footage [REC] in 2007, and its lackluster follow-up, [REC]2 in 2009. Nevertheless, he’s back for real with an excellent horror/thriller that proves to be unsettling until the credits start to roll.

SLEEP TIGHT, based on Alberto Marini’s taut script, was originally slated to take place in Manhattan, but Balaguero convinced him to tweak the characters to suit the culture of Barcelona. The result is a look not so much into the lives of the haves and have-nots, but the element of happiness, and what one man, Cesar (Luis Tosar) will do to thwart the emotion if he can’t possess it for himself.

Cesar’s suicidal. Happiness has never been a part of his essence, though he really wants to find a reason to live. But if he can’t find how to live with a smile, he’ll do his damnedest to take someone’s away. That person is a high-end tenant in a Barcelona apartment. Clara (Marta Etura) has it all: great apartment, great job, and a great lover. Her smile never quits. She wakes up happy, goes to bed happy, and her good looks exude a slice of sunshine. And the apartment building’s concierge, Cesar, the go-to guy for plant watering, insect extermination, and dog feeding, is the pissed off deviant that wants to bring her down any way he can.

To say much more about SLEEP TIGHT would detract from Balaguero’s brilliant slight of hand. His masterful strokes of camera angles, and “Aha” moments are reminiscent of early Hitchcock. Trust me, he does not copy the famed director, but it’s clear he paid attention to the British helmsman’s penchant for storytelling, and how to reveal the goods in his own special way.

Tosar is phenomenal as the concierge with the fake half-smile that wants to undo the happy-go-lucky world around him. If you have a real smile, you’re a target, and he wipes that smile off people’s faces with wit, cruel insight, and a calm demeanor equivalent to a slow moving shark. By the time he comes for your emotional state, it’s already too late. Etura also shines as the bright side of the moon, her counterpart admires and despises at the same time. Thanks to her skilled interpretation of the character, we never feel like rich-girl is about to get her just desserts. She’s a woman who’s comfortable, but never uses her status as a weapon to degrade others, including lowly Cesar. Marini clearly created wonderful, indepth characters for this cat and mouse game of emotion.

Granted, SLEEP TIGHT sounds more like a dramatic thriller than a horror, but the subtlety of the horror burns steady and long. Think Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), or the power of Juan Antonio Bayona’s THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

Cinematographer, Pablo Rosso’s lighting and angles are stellar. We’ve seen his work from the [REC] series, and he only gets better like the finest of wines. To date, this is Rosso’s greatest cinematic achievement. Combined with Guillermo de la Cal’s seamless editing, and Lucas Vidal’s original score, we’re given a film that will continue to attract audiences for many years.

SLEEP TIGHT is a must see for those who love a strong narrative, as well as a vibrant character study. And the ending is enough to make one cringe, and buckle under the emotional tumult of it all. Audiences should thank Balaguero, Marini and company for offering a cinematic thriller that never lets them off the hook, or delivers a mundane ending. There’s no doubt you’ll take a deep breath after engaging this one.

Rent it now.

4 out of 5 stars