October Horror Roundup

Some years it seems October passes me by before I realize it, and I find myself staring November 1st in the face with the startling realization that I neglected to watch any horror to get myself into the Halloween spirit. Granted, horror can (and should) be enjoyed all year long, but taking in some spooky stuff while the decorations are out is extra special.

This year I made it a point to not let one of my favorite holidays (shout out to Christmas) pass me by. I’ve been able to check out a handful of horror I hadn’t seen before, and it’s been wonderful. I tried to cover as much of the horror spectrum as I could, from over-the-top-bonkers gore spectaculars to more traditional creepfests. I lucked out in that none of it was especially bad, and some of it was incredibly good. So if you need a kick in the pants to rev up your Halloween spirit or want something scary to watch in the dark on All Hallow’s Eve, here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve seen so far this month. (All available on Netflix)

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Terrifier (2017) 

Terrifier is all about expectations. If you’re looking for subtle, nuanced fright, look elsewhere—subtlety is not to be found in this throwback to 80’s slasher flicks. Some have criticized the film for its derivative, paper-thin plot, but honestly, this film lets you know what you’re in for within the first five minutes. When you see a character’s eyeballs popped in their sockets, you should adjust your expectations accordingly.

Featuring a sadistic killer clown out on the town for a maniacal killing spree, the kills in Terrifier are straight up gnarly: decapitations, dismemberments, and one scene so shocking (featuring the world’s sharpest hacksaw) that it even got raised eyebrows from this gourmet of gore. There’s a degree of detachment to most of the violence thanks to its less-than-realistic effects work, which only serves to add to the campiness and pitch black comedy.

Bottom Line: If you’re into crazy, over the top gore and not looking to set the bar too high, this will be right up your alley.

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The Ritual (2017)

Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual is very Blair Witch-esque, featuring some lost hikers in the hills of Scandinavia and a (seemingly) supernatural entity haunting them at their every turn. The film does a great job of mixing physical scares with psychological terror, and there’s a nice element of surrealism to keep you wondering exactly what the hell you’re watching.

Without getting into spoilers, once the men see the thing in the forest they have been running from, it’s one of the best reveals I can remember in a long time. A truly WTF climax, with about as satisfying an ending as a movie of this type can deliver. This one definitely surpassed my expectations.

Bottom Line: A nice take on a familiar story, well written and well executed.

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The Haunting of Hill House (2018) 

There’s not a lot about this 10-part series that hasn’t already been said. It’s probably the most buzzed-about thing Netflix has had since diving into original programming, and if you haven’t already seen it you might be wondering how something so critically lauded can possibly live up to the hype. All I can tell you is that it does, in spades.

Nearly every frame of Hill House’s ten hours is filled with a palpable sense of dread. You never know what’s going to happen at any given moment, and just when you think you’re safe something will catch you off guard. All of this done with very few jump scares (and excellent timing of the ones they do use), and practically no blood or gore.

The ending has been roundly criticized, but that is truly a nit being picked by people who should appreciate being given a piece of work this exceptional. When the worst thing people can say about a ten-part saga is that it’s not absolutely perfect, you know you’ve got something special.

Bottom Line: Believe the hype. A definite must watch.

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Oculus (2014)

In what turned out to be a double shot from director Mike Flanagan, Oculus has a few things in common with The Haunting of Hill House—namely how ghosts haunt and ultimately screw up an otherwise happy family, and some reverse storytelling to gradually reveal what really unfolded. Initially revealing a young boy killing his father after a dastardly bout of domestic violence, the film makes use of flashbacks to fill in the missing details, and show us how the adults were manipulated by a haunted mirror that had come into the family’s possession. (That sounds corny as I type it out, but it actually works in the movie, trust me.)

Now grown, the children are determined to document exactly what powers the mirror possesses before ultimately destroying it—but of course the mirror won’t go down that easily. The ending is quite satisfying, although a major part of the climax will be obvious to anyone who’s got even a basic knack for spotting foreshadowing.

Bottom Line: Not great but by no means bad, Oculus proves Hill House was no fluke for Flanagan.

***NOTE: Oculus is only available on Netflix until Nov. 1st, hurry if you want to see it.

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Tales of Halloween (2015)

In the mood for a string of campy mini B movies with gore galore and enough cheese to make fondue? Friend, meet Tales of Halloween. Made up of ten horror comedy shorts from various writers and directors, Adrienne Barbeau of Creepshow fame plays a local DJ who serves to string the tales together in a style reminiscent of old HBO favorite Tales From the Crypt.

The shorts run the gamut from amusing to decent to bad; a couple of them border on good, and some stink outright. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—the stories are so short that the next one is on before you can complain about the last one. Gallows humor and corny comedic violence abound, making the fact that the content is not exactly top notch easier to swallow. Another reason to sit through it is the plethora of cameos, including horror directors John Landis and Mick Garris, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Barry Bostwick, Greg Grunberg of TV’s Alias and Heroes fame, and one of my all-time favorite comedians (and former writer on The Simpsons), Dana Gould.

Bottom Line: Worth watching if you are in the mood for total silliness but still want gore and violence. Willing to bet it would be 100% better with alcohol.

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Apostle (2018)

Quite different than the other ones I’ve mentioned, Apostle is a period piece set on a remote Welsh island in 1905. Our protagonist Thomas Richardson’s sister has been kidnapped by a religious cult, and is demanding ransom for her release. Traveling to the island amid followers and infiltrating the cult, Thomas sets out to find his sister and rescue her from the clutches of the madman ‘prophet’ and his disciples. Of course, there is much more to the story which it’s better not to know going in. Suffice to say, belonging to the cult involves bloodletting, and there’s a wicked bit of medieval torture involving a device called The Heathen’s Stand.

Apostle is a slow burn compared to much of the contemporary horror put out nowadays—it’s almost like a mashup of The Wicker Man and The VVitch. The dialogue and many of the finer points of the script are a bit slow, but the chills and violence more than make up for it.

Bottom Line: Could be better, could’ve been a lot worse. It’s easily good enough to stick with it until the very cool ending.

Well, there you have it! Let me know f you end up watching something I mentioned above, and don’t hesitate to let me know of any good horror you’ve seen recently that you’d recommend to close out October!

Happy Halloween, people!

 

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The BoJ Quarterly Book Report: Summer Edition

I’m staying just about on pace for my new year’s resolution of reading a book a month. I got ahead at one point, but between running into a couple of books that were hard to make myself read and other stuff that made me not want to read at all, I slowed back down a tad. I have four reviews here, though I’ll actually be talking about five books. Not that it makes a lick of difference to you, but I’m going in reverse chronological order, starting with the book I just finished. Alrighty then, let’s get to it.

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Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn (2006)

I liked Gone Girl quite a bit (though I understand some of the backlash it received) and was curious to see what Flynn’s other work was like. I was not disappointed.

Her debut novel centers around Camille Preaker, a talented-but-not-living-up-to-her-potential reporter living in Chicago, who is sent back to her hellhole hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the murders of two young girls, apparently the work of a serial killer—both girls had some (or all) of their teeth pulled out prior to disposal of the bodies.

Camille is not entirely mentally stable herself, as it’s revealed that she’s a cutter: she takes pleasure from carving words into her flesh, and is fresh off a stint in rehab to try and cure her of her condition. As the story goes on, however, and we meet Camille’s mother, stepdad, and half-sister, we see that Camille may be the sanest one in the family.

Thoughts as a reader: This story is dark. As in, near pitch black. It paints an ominous picture of small town life that gave me the feeling it hit very close to home for the author (who, I know from reading about her, also lived in Missouri). Most—though it should be noted not all—of the characters are really screwed up, which of course makes them interesting to read about. The ending, while I did predict it partially, still made me grin at the sick twist of what happened to the victims’  missing teeth.

Thoughts as a writer: I really enjoy Flynn’s writing voice. It’s easy to dive into her work and lose yourself. Her characters are vivid and easy to picture in your mind. With only three books under her belt (and movie deals for all three books), she has already established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Also, reminding myself that Sharp Objects was her debut is incredibly intimidating as I continue to write and rewrite the story I finally decided on to make my own first novel. It reminded me of when I was first learning to play guitar and thinking I was making some progress, then listened to BB King or Eric Clapton and realized I was only a few steps down this new path, and the masters were so far down the road they were almost out of sight.

My rating: 4 stars

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The Haunting of Hill House — Shirley Jackson (1959)

Shirley Jackson is a legend in the literary world. There is even an award named for her given to writers “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.”

Widely regarded as one the all-time classic horror novels and the be all end all of haunted house stories, I was thrilled when I happened to find Hill House at my local library. I thought I owed it to myself as an aspiring horror writer (or maybe more accurately, a writer who occasionally writes horror) to check this book out and read it ASAP.

Hill House is an old mansion with a troubled past. Doctor John Montague is an investigator of the supernatural who rents the house for the summer to see what (if any) evidence can support the legend of Hill House. He and three guests occupy the house and…well, you know. It’s a haunted house story, after all.

Thoughts as a reader: I’m afraid to write this. I want to just come up to you all one by one, look in all directions to make sure the coast is clear, then whisper this to you: I did not like this book. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. Seriously though, I don’t know what to think. This isn’t a very polarizing book that some people like and some people don’t. It is unanimously praised as one of the greatest scary stories of all time. To disagree means you’re stupid or you just don’t get it. I’ll leave it for others to decide on which side of that I fall.

The scares are subtle. Very, very subtle. So subtle they’re not even explained, and sometimes barely mentioned. But that’s not my problem with it. This book lost me before it ever got to the scares. This is a very short book, and by the 50-60 page mark I was pleading for something to just happen already. 

Thoughts as a writer: After having it hammered into your head to avoid adverbs like the plauge the majority of the time, it’s a bit distracting to read something that has them peppered in so liberally. One character “stretched luxuriously.” What the hell does that even mean? I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room a lot of the time, but seriously, what is that?

Maybe this book is too understated, too subtle for me. I just don’t know what else to say. I literally fell asleep reading this book. I will almost certainly read it again sometime, just to see if anything strikes me differently the second time around.

My rating: 3 stars (because I’m afraid to give it less, otherwise the writers’ mafia might come see me and I might meet with an unfortunate accident, capiche?)

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Double Feature — Owen King (2013)

Another find at my local library. Owen is the youngest son of Stephen King (and brother of Joe Hill), so naturally I was curious.

A novel about a young filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in his B-actor father’s shadow. Sounds vaguely familiar.

This is the only book since I started really reading again that I haven’t finished. It was a little slow (albeit interesting) from the get go, with lots of big words I had to skip over or look up. That’s okay—if you have a big vocabulary, by all means use it; it’s good for me. No, where I finally gave up was about 60-70 pages in, where I encountered something I hadn’t seen before:

A sixteen-page-long paragraph. Sixteen pages. One-six. I knew then I wouldn’t be finishing the book in the allotted 14 day period I had from the library, since it was a “new release.” I know I could’ve gotten more time, but I had also checked out Hill House and was excited to read that. I very well may come back to it sometime.

My rating: Incomplete

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Pygmy —Chuck Palahniuk (2009)

I didn’t know anything about this book before I checked it out of the library. I’ve read/listened to audiobooks of three of Palahniuk’s novels; some I liked and some I didn’t, but I would consider myself a fan of his, by and large. Earlier I used the word polarizing—you want polarizing? Here we go.

Pygmy is the tale of a covert terrorist agent from an unnamed country, sent (along with a handful of his comrades) to America under the guise of being an exchange student. He’s 13, a complete genius who has encyclopedic knowledge of science and literature, and is extensively trained in some sort of krav-maga style of martial arts—his entire body is a deadly weapon.

Oh, and did I mention: The entire book is written in broken, ‘foreigner’ English. Some people can’t deal with it; it’s distracting, to say the least.

Thoughts as a reader: I read three pages before putting the book down and saying to my wife, “I’m not going to be able to read this crap.” It kept calling me, though, and the next day I picked it back up and made myself read the first two (very short) chapters. That did it. I knew then that come hell or high-water I would finish this book. And believe it or not, I’m glad I did. It takes some concentration to get into the weird, broken English. (Sample sentence: “Here worship shrine, all male neck must bind around with knotted banner, silk banner knotted at windpipe so dangle two long strands down chest to waistband trouser.” Okay, all the men at church are wearing neck ties—got it.) And why is it that this child genius who knows how to kill people with one finger, build bombs and quote famous authors hasn’t yet gotten a grasp on basic English? You just have to suspend disbelief there, as well as a lot of other places.

And yet, the story managed to get its hooks in me and by the end I almost laughed out loud a couple times. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I felt like I was reading the novelization of an as-yet unmade John Waters movie—characters that were absurdly satirical, and lots of lame sex jokes.

Thoughts as a writer: This took balls. To be honest, I don’t know who has bigger balls: Palahniuk for writing the book, or his publisher for agreeing to put it out. I guess it’s easy to have such testicular fortitude when you’re already a best-selling author, versus some (mostly) unpublished schmuck like me. It may never make my list of best books ever, but I admire the work it had to take to make it happen, and I do have a soft spot for it. And if John Waters ever makes a movie version, I want a producer credit.

My rating: 2 stars (although my view has softened and I’m tempted to bump it to 2 1/2 or 3)

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The End of Alice — A.M. Homes (1999)

Another book I had heard a lot about. This one makes me feel weird, in both good and bad ways. I saved this one for last for a reason.

Alice is about a convicted pedophile doing his time in prison while hoping against hope for parole, when he unexpectedly becomes pen pals with a 19 year old girl. She knows who the man is (he is quite infamous because of the crimes he committed against the titular Alice, which is what put him in prison), and confesses to him that she is having similar thoughts about a 12 year old boy in her neighborhood. He is both aroused by the girl’s desires and jealous of the attention the girl gives the young boy. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the girl serves as a catalyst to make our convict remember things he’s tried to forget while in prison: his primal urges, his penchant for violence, and what ultimately was ‘the end of Alice.’

Thoughts as a reader: If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized by now I’m no prude. Quite the opposite. I actually like stories that are weird, strange, dark, violent, disturbing, you name it. Very few books or movies get a very big reaction from me. That said, The End of Alice made me want to run screaming into a Silkwood shower and scrub myself with a Brillo pad, crying ‘unclean…unclean…’  Yeah. It’s that bad. But it’s good…if you can take it.

There is incredibly detailed description of pedophilia and horrific violence, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. But the thing is, it’s written so eloquently that it sucks you in (again, if you can take it) to the point that you almost start to empathize with this monster. I doubt many of you have seen the movie Happiness, but it reminds me of Happiness if it was written by a sex-crazed version of Hannibal Lechter.

I actually liked this book a great deal, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone because I don’t know many people who could stomach it. If you’re not sure if you can handle it, you probably can’t. If, on the other hand, you can get through the vile acts described in the book, I found it quite good. My only real complaint is that the story was a bit anti-climactic. I thought the story was building toward what was going to happen with the girl and the 12 year old, when instead the climax of the story if finally finding out what actually happened to Alice.

Thoughts as a writer: Again, the balls it took to write something like this. And I hope this comes out sounding the way I mean it to, but I’m astonished this book was written by a woman. I’d love to know what kind of research she did to get in the head of such a despicable, evil person so completely. As sick as it is, I would read this again, even though I half-jokingly wondered once if buying it or checking out of the library put me on some kind of watch list.

My rating: 4 stars

Well, that’s it until the fall book report. I’m currently reading The Ruins by Scott Smith, and despite being intimidated by its size (not to mention having already seen the movie), at 60 pages in I’m beyond hooked.

I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the books above, whether you’ve already read them or plan to go and read them—or avoid them—because of my review. Let me know! Other than that, what about you? Read any good books lately?

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