Possession (1981) Written & Directed by Andrzej Żuławski
The most terrifying experiences we have daily are through our nightmares. The worst is when the nightmare feels so real you forget you are asleep, becoming lost in a world of symbols rather than logic. Your anxieties manifest as material beings tormenting you, familiar landscapes become claustrophobic mazes, and the faces of those you love can serve as masks for dark thoughts and fears. Writer-director Andrzej Żuławski places his horror film Possession in this realm from the first frame. Now the question of whose nightmare we are living inside of is definitely up in the air.
The Exorcist (1973) Written by William Peter Blatty Directed by William Friedkin
There will never be another horror film like The Exorcist, which is in the context of it becoming a cultural phenomenon. I was born eight years after it was released, and I can remember hearing stories about how people passed out in the theater or ran screaming out of the building. I’d glanced at quick clips of the film during shows like Entertainment Tonight when they talked about the movie in retrospect. I think that hype has died down because of the decentralized nature of media in the digital age. There have been much more extreme horror films released since in regards to gore and the depiction of demon possession. However, The Exorcist is a Horror Masterwork, not because it’s unrelenting scary in any capacity, but because it balances both terror and humanity.
Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives in Georgetown while filming a movie directed by her good friend Burke Dennings. She’s brought along her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while Chris’s marriage to her husband has fallen apart weeks prior. Chris and Regan take up residence in a brownstone two-story home attended to by the husband-wife housekeepers. Everything is cozy and typical until Regan begins exhibiting strange behaviors. They are subtle at first and pawned off as hormonal issues or possibly ADHD. Things grow more sinister until it becomes utterly unavoidable that an evil presence has taken hold of Reagan’s body and is tormenting her.
Meanwhile, we follow the parallel story of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who is struggling with his faith while caring for his aging and ailing Greek immigrant mother. We learn through artifacts around her home that Damien was a prizefighter once, and at some point, he abandoned that sport to pursue a degree in psychology. Now he works as a psychiatrist for the church, helping both the congregation and his fellow clergymen. His destiny crosses paths with Chris and Regan and a veteran priest, Father Merrin, who is well-studied on matters of demon possession. This all leads to one dark night where the forces of light confront the monsters that dwell in darkness.
Now that the media hype has died down, decades later, The Exorcist is not a nailbiting jumpscare fest but rather a well-thought-out grounded tragedy with a very optimistic ending. William Friedkin has always played with heightened and grounded senses of reality. His more recent work has been more overtly stylized, but in the 1970s, with pictures like The French Connection, he went for a more documentary filmmaking style. He was interested in the process and the steps a person took in doing their job.
Friedkin approaches Regan’s condition and the exorcism in the same manner. For most of the picture, the young girl is undergoing blood tests, getting brain scans, etc. It’s only the last 30 minutes that we actually watch the exorcism. Even that ritual is seen as a series of neutral, emotionally disconnected steps that purge the demon from the girl’s body. Merrin approaches the task like a plumber would clear out a pipe while Karras has his emotions betray him but ultimately save the day. As the demon taunts the priests, they leave the room to collect their thoughts and Fr. Merrin explains that the devil wants them “to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.” In turn, this implies that adherence to ritual and procedure is what elevates humanity above the beasts. To become possessed is to fall into a place of pure emotion and illogical thinking.
There’s a rich air of mystery throughout The Exorcist, with so many unexplained components left for the audience to contemplate. The entire opening in Iraq, following Fr. Merrin as he leads an archaeological dig and confronts the statue of a demon he seems to recognize, seems disconnected from the rest of the film until Merrin resurfaces at the end of the second act. Regan’s possession is never logically explained. We get hints about it through her use of the ouija board and Chris’s discovery of a stone demon’s head. There’s the crucifix discovered under Regan’s pillow that no adult in the house will admit they gave to her, and they seem honest in their answers. The biggest question in the whole picture is, “Why did the demon possess Regan?” She’s a child who doesn’t even show signs of malice or evil. That is what makes this such an unsettlingly story ultimately, that someone who seems the least like to become a conduit of evil so easily could. Fr. Karras’s crisis of faith coincides with this discovery, how could God create a world where something so evil could exist?
Friedkin refuses to take the easy way out and answer your questions. Sadly, many of the sequels that were to come decided to explicitly try to explain things, which is why they are so terrible. The perfection of the first film is that it just acts as a recordkeeper, showing us what happened without allowing us to understand. In turn, the audience is forced to grapple with the great existential questions these events imply. Is innocence a non-existent concept, a fantasy invented so that we can believe our children are safe from the evils of the world?
There is heavy subtext about the sexual maturation of women present throughout The Exorcist. Regan is a girl just at the age when she might begin menstruation. She violates herself with a crucifix, producing blood and taunting her carers with sexual obscenities. Before things become so ostentatious, she’s just a cranky girl getting a check-up at the doctor, letting a profanity slip when she doesn’t want to be poked or prodded anymore. In many ways, what we see is an adult nightmare of female adolescence played out, particularly in how American Christians perceive sexual maturation. You need only look to the fundamentalist fervor over abortion to see the bizarre relationship between these religious people and sexuality. The unborn, voiceless & powerless are the most precious of all and so innocent, while the minute after they are born, filled with the potential of having a different set of opinions than the conservative Christians, they become unimportant and not worth the time. Regan’s experience is a direct confrontation with this mindset, mocking their Puritanical mores for being naive and intolerant.
There is so much happening in The Exorcist, much more than relegating it to a cultural novelty that spooked audience members in the 1970s. It is an enigmatic film that wants you to actively engage in the ideas it presents. There is no pipe smoking expert, a la Psycho, who will exposit for the audience’s benefit in the final ten minutes to explain to us what just happened. Regan is saved, she and her mom are leaving, and the people who live in Georgetown are left to contemplate what just happened with no easy answers coming any time soon.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) Written & Directed by Jim Cummings
I was overwhelmingly impressed with actor-writer-director Jim Cummings 2018 debut feature film, Thunder Road. He managed to find both humor and pathos in a character that easily could have slipped into caricature. In some ways, he has returned to that same character in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. He’s a police officer, sharing custody of a teenage daughter and tackling some deep-seated emotional issues. This is done through carefully tailored moments of humor & drama, all against the backdrop of a series of what appears to be killings at the hands of a werewolf.
Alien (1979) Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett Directed by Ridley Scott
It can be hard to see the original Alien movie separate from the bloated franchise it has become in the ensuing four decades. The last entry into the series, Alien: Covenant, is so different that it might as well be set in a brand-new universe and considered a reboot of the entire premise. Before viewing the original Alien, it is recommended that you try and purge all thoughts of what came later and approach the picture as a singular one-and-done experience. By not watching the movie as part of an ongoing series, which at the time it was made, no sequel plans were in the works, it heightens the horror of the overall story.
Seven (1995) Written by Andrew Kevin Walker Directed by David Fincher
There is a depth of humanity in Seven, hidden beneath the stylized neo-noir aftermath of violence that its detectives stumble across in crime scene after crime scene. David Fincher movies often get swallowed up in the fervor over aesthetics and jolting set pieces that we often forget the richly developed characters that make up his world. Detectives Somerset & Mills and Mills’s wife Tracy are beautifully written roles performed by actors who understand nuance’s power. The infamous finale of Seven, a scene that has somewhat become a parody in the pop culture in the ensuing decades, almost brought me to tears this time around. I empathized with the trio of protagonists so that this final obscenity tore right through me.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Written by Carl Mayer & Hans Janowitz Directed by Robert Wiene
One hundred years ago, during the Weimar Republic period in Germany, this silent horror film was released. This was a time of fertile artists in all media forms, especially the still-developing medium of cinema. Simultaneously, philosophy and psychology were carving out new avenues of thought and mental health, developing a more comprehensive understanding of consciousness and the inner world. The brutality of the war government and its aftermath fueled this exploration, an entire culture trying to make sense of itself, unaware of the dark journey they were taking and it’s horrific ends.
Abe lost his wife to cancer after only two years of marriage. Dan lost his wife and two children in a car accident. These two men have bonded in their grief by fishing in and around the Catskills and the Ashokan Reservoir. One day Dan suggests they try Dutchman’s Creek, a body of water Abe isn’t familiar with and can’t seem to find on any of his maps. Dan seems to know where the creek is, and on a rainy Saturday morning, they head out. A fateful stop at a diner in the area leads to them to hear the story of how Dutchman’s Creek got its name and a warning to stay away from this place. John Langan has a masterful command of language and the ability to create a palpable atmosphere. He does something that, by all sense, should not work in a novel. Langan interrupts the main story to tell a novella-length history of where the horror of Dutchman’s Creek came from. I’m always turned off when horror attempts to explain itself, but here he refuses to give the evil origins. The story is filtered through four or five layers of people so that we get very rough descriptions and details only when they are needed to punctuate the unnatural nature of the evil.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
This fantastic novel from Paul Tremblay begins with the hook of Majorie, a teenage girl, and her rebellion against her parents being read as demon possession. Told from the point of view of her younger sister, Merry, we follow the domestic turmoil of their father losing his job, falling back into religious zealotry, and possibly exploiting his eldest daughter’s mental state for money. The Church becomes involved, followed by a basic cable channel out to make a docuseries on the possession. It’s all told through conversations between a now-adult Merry and a reporter, with asides to a fan blog that breaks down the episodes of the reality series. Tremblay has publicly stated that the novel is meant to be open for a multitude of interpretations. The big question when you reach the end is, of course, “Was Marjorie really possessed?” By not including direct transcripts of The Possession reality series, only having their events filtered through The Last Final Girl blog and Merry’s memories, we are forced to crane our neck around bedroom door frames in an attempt to see what truly went on in that house.
Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron
Laird Barron is my favorite contemporary horror author and has been ever since I picked up his short story collections. They are often told in pulpy voices but with profoundly Lovecraftian themes. Barron hasn’t just cribbed entities from the Cthulhu’s creator but has developed his own mythos centered around The Old Leech. All of Barron’s collections are fantastic, but I chose this one because it features two of my favorite stories of all-time. In “Mysterium Tremendum,” we are introduced to a crowdsourced travel guide of occult locales across the nation that sends one couple and their visiting friends into the Pacific Northwestern wilderness. They encounter something primal, dating back to the days of Neanderthals, which ends in brutal violence. This isn’t where the story ends and where it’s epilogue leaves us is one of the most profoundly affecting conclusions I’ve ever read. The second story I love from this collection is “The Broadsword,” the tale of a nightmarish apartment building and a man who becomes targeted by entities that wander the halls at night. This story fully embraces the strange alien insectoid elements of the Old Leech mythos and gives Lovecraft a run for his money. I highly recommend everything Barron has written, so you are in for a treat no matter where you start.
Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
The most significant selling point of this collection is that it repackages the novella The Visible Filth, which I previously reviewed. However, this book has some of the most fantastic horror stories I’ve read in a long time, revolving around the intersection of our world and the forces of Hell. “The Maw” is a horror story that brought me to tears. The ground opens up, and demonic forces emerge that cordon off a portion of a city. Oscar escapes with his only friend, his dog. His dog runs off at some point, and Oscar is convinced she’s gone back to his old apartment in the occupied area of the city. He employs a teenage guide, Mix, who keeps trying to get Oscar to turn back. This story combines the best of Clive Barker’s hellish imagery with heart-aching pathos about love and not having that love returned. The collection is bookended by stories that create a cycle, “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Butchers Table.” The first story is in contemporary New Orleans, where a mob boss forces a man to journey out into the swamp and recover an artifact. The second story is a magnificent novella that is the story of that artifact and how it came to be. “The Butchers Table” is Pirates of the Caribbean through a demonic filter with so many tense triggers that lead to a Grand Guignol of a finale. We follow a group of Satanists who have chartered a pirate vessel to take them to the borders of Hell. Everyone has a secondary motive, and it all culminates in something so nasty and satisfying. It’s a bunch of bad guys getting everything they deserve, described deliciously.
Song for the Unraveling of the World: Stories by Brian Evenson
I have yet to read any of Brian Evenson’s novels, but I have enjoyed his short stories so far. His first collection, A Collapse of Horses, was tremendous, but this volume is even better. He’s very confident in the work and can present multiple perspectives without ever being reductive about mental illness. Several characters could be considered mentally ill, but they never get presented as tropes. In “Room Tone,” a young filmmaker is obsessed with getting a filming space’s ambient noise. However, the house he shot his movie in has a new owner that wants to be left alone. The director just can’t move past this and goes to extreme lengths to get his recording. In “Born Stillborn,” a patient believes his psychiatrist is visiting him at night as he tries to go to sleep, asking the real questions. His daytime sessions are full of false questions with secret messages the doctor is sending. “Leaking Out” is a wonderfully simple horror tale about a drifter seeking refuge in an old house. The premise is classic, but the monster living in this place is nebulous and terrifying. “The Tower” is a dark fantasy apocalypse about what might be a vampire who comes to a scattered settlement of survivors. This story was one of my favorites and created such a fleshed-out world in so few strokes that it made me want to explore this world even more. “Lather of Flies is a mind-being horror story about a reclusive director’s lost film which goes to some fantastic places. This is one of the most substantial short story collections I’ve read this year, which says a lot because I’ve consumed some great ones.
The Collection by Bentley Little
This is the best bang for your buck, 32 short horror stories that are all over the place. With any short story collection, you’ll find ones you love, ones you hate, and all the stuff in the middle. Author Bentley Little just straight up loves all types of horror and finds ways to give his readers a sample of everything. Little offers a brief preface before each tale to note his inspiration or how he was commissioned to write this particular story. The most visceral and potent to me was “Life With Father,” the story of a patriarch obsessed with recycling to an upsetting degree. It’s told from his eldest daughter’s perspective, who has normalized this insane behavior along with her siblings. There’s a breaking point, and it ends on a strangely happy note. “The Washingtonians” is a delightfully bizarre alternate history that frames the first president and the founding fathers as child-eating ghouls. “Skin” sees a family stopping on a road trip, and discovering the historical home they are visiting is made of human skin. This has rippling effects on them all after returning home. “The Man in the Passenger Seat” is a surreal waking nightmare coming out of the question ‘What if you got in your car and a strange man was just sitting there refusing to leave?’ Little loves mixing dark comedy with his work and knows when a story needs to be straightforward and bleak.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemec
Julie and James feel a strong need to leave their urban apartment and purchase a home in the suburbs. They find a large house that is surprisingly affordable, but something is off even during their first walk-through. There is a hum coming from somewhere beneath them, inside the walls, never becoming too loud but always ringing in their ears. The couple shakes it off and goes on with moving in and making this home their own. Things just get worse though, rooms that didn’t exist before suddenly appear, stains appear on the walls that won’t seem to go away, and even the neighbor and boys playing in the woods nearby start to become figures of menace and dread. James and Julie start lying to each other, which only increases their paranoia and disconnect, leading to a horrific conclusion. The Grip of It is an indie horror film on the page. It is profoundly ambiguous and offers no clear explanations, and the supernatural is the canvas on which a more human story is painted. But that is its strength, that the truth about the house is unknowable to our main characters. Much like the television series The Leftovers, the focus is not on uncovering the hook’s roots, but rather how the people involved live with this aberrant element in their lives. The story teases with hints of who used to live in Julie and James’ home but never features exposition to spell it all out.
Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt
Greener Pastures is the debut horror short story collection from author Michael Wehunt. This was my first encounter with Mr. Wehunt’s work. What I found was a robust variety of stories that touch on various types of horror. Everything about this book feels nothing like a first-timer, but someone very confident in their craft, weaving themes into the narrative and building characters who react in real, human ways to terrifying situations. One of my favorites is “October Film Haunt: Under the House,” a found-footage story. Ever since I read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I have been a sucker for representing visual media in text for horror. There’s something so compelling about reading a transcript of found footage that is much more terrifying than seeing it. There is such distinct imagery in this piece, but the meaning is left ambiguous. I read this story a few days before the release of the Resident Evil VII demo that also features found footage in a haunted house, and this story is much scarier than the decent jump scares of the video game. The book’s cover features an image from this particular story, a dog emerging from the woods holding a wooden crown in its teeth. Something that bears such horrifying weight in the context of the story.
The Thing (1982) Written by Bill Lancaster Directed by John Carpenter
John Carpenter’s films were mostly considered failures financially and critically when they were first released, and he made many of them quickly. From 1976 to 2001, Carpenter directed 17 films and handled writing, producing, and score composing duties. He most certainly enjoyed genre films, mainly science fiction & horror, and definitely made them the way he wanted. The result is a very mixed bag of pictures, in some ways an acquired taste with some movies being better entry-level pieces than others. My personal opinion is that most of Carpenter’s films are not good, but the good ones are absolutely fantastic. When he finds all the right parts and slides them into place, you end up with some of the best horror pictures ever made. The Thing is a perfect example of this.
A Norwegian helicopter pursues a sled dog across the Antarctic wastelands, right into an American research camp. The American scientists and military personnel inside coming out to try and figure out what is happening but not before one of the Norwegians accidentally blows himself, and the other is killed while shooting at the dog. The men at the station are entirely befuddled about why anyone would expend such effort in hunting down a sled dog. MacCready (Kurt Russell), the pilot, and two other men journey to the Norwegian outpost’s remains and find it a smoking hovel. There’s a malformed corpse outside the snow, resembling a human but twisted and distorted. Back at the research station, the sled dog wanders the hall, bizarrely in calm and in control for an animal. As the days roll on, it becomes clear these men have allowed something evil into their presence, an entity from beyond the stars with one purpose, to consume and reproduce until all life on Earth is gone.
The Thing is indeed a horror masterpiece, capturing the roiling sense of paranoia that is all too easy to agitate in human beings. These characters are confronted with something beyond their personal understanding of the universe that their interpersonal relationships deteriorate quickly. My viewings of The Thing are probably in the double digits by now, but I always discover new things or notice storytelling choices. We never get a backstory on any of these characters, and we don’t need it. There is a sense that everyone has interpersonal connections, both positive and negative, but there’s no unnecessary exposition to explain to the audience what is going on. MacReady and Childs (Keith David) obviously have tension between them, which is exacerbated by the situation with the alien. The sign of good writing is that I can feel those relationships without having them explained to me.
The horror of The Thing is the fear of complete annihilation. This was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and his cosmic elder gods who are so beyond human ability to stop them that his protagonists often find themselves lost in insanity. The Thing is a shapeless being, unable to be defined in terms that match our understanding of biology. There is also the alien nature of Antarctica, the least explored landmass on Earth, a setting for Lovecraft’s longest work, In The Mountains of Madness. That title would be used by Carpenter for his more explicit Lovecraft homage In The Mouth of Madness. Antarctica is desolate and remote, far from any sign of civilization. The annihilation could be global, as identified by Blair (Wilford Brimley), or centered around the destruction of individual identity. To be alone, away from those you love in a frozen wasteland, all you have left are your memories and identity, and then those are stripped away is nightmarish.
The shining gem amid this beautifully written picture are the even more mind-blowing practical effects. Rob Bottin is responsible for the multiple forms The Thing takes, and each one is a beautifully designed nightmare. In the film, these forms appear as static sculptures and puppets that deliver unforgettable moments. Carpenter allows the film to build to ever-increasingly intense terror, beginning with the sculpture pieces, remnants of failed forms The Thing tried to take. By the time we get to the defibrillator scene, all bets are off, and Carpenter allows the film to go completely insane. I am not a huge fan of gore and blood, but damn if that scene isn’t a masterpiece of horror. Your brain is trying to keep up with the bizarre ways the creature morphs and reshapes itself in seconds in an attempt to survive and keep going.
Few horror films reach the pinnacle that The Thing achieves. It’s so funny to read about how poorly it did at the box office and that the movie caused Carpenter to lose his next job. Universal has a multi-picture deal with the director and bought him out after the performance of The Thing. Home video and edited for television airings allowed the audience to grow, and now The Thing is pretty universally considered one of the best films Carpenter ever made. There was a hideous prequel, stupidly titled The Thing that came out in 2011, which should be avoided. There is also a remake in the works, but I really hope that falls through. They can never recreate the magic of Carpenter’s picture, computer effects will inevitably replace the perfect physical ones, and they will pale in comparison.
The Dollhouse Family (2020) Written by M.R. Carey Art by Peter Gross & Vince Locke
Hill House Comics hasn’t really lived up to the hype. Other than The Low Low Woods, I haven’t found any of them very enjoyable or all that horrific, really. The Dollhouse Family is one of the most frustrating entries into the DC imprint because it has so many seeds of potential greatness but then gets lost in the plot and ends with a horrible whimper. I would say The Dollhouse Family is the least satisfying Hill House Comics read for me so far, made even more irritating by the fact that it has that previously mentioned potential.
The Fly (1986) Written by Charles Edward Pogue & David Cronenberg Directed by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg will be forever associated with some of the best body horror in cinema. Though his film career is not limited exclusively to horror, his most celebrated works fit into that genre. Cronenberg has a great interest in exploring the line between the psychological & physical, how technology behaves like an infection, and the ultimate frailty of our material forms. The movies he has had made are not carving a new path but taking the one created by the first body horror pictures like Frankenstein and Dracula and going more in-depth with their themes, re-examining these ideas of humanity & identity through a contemporary lens.