It’s rare enough to find a film that believes in revolution, much less one willing to posit a post-revolutionary world. What do we do with one that imagines both, but worries about how oppression will be handled after the rev?

Born In Flames is flawed but fearless; it’s a masterpiece. Its creator, Lizzie Borden (yes, Lizzie Borden), is out to gut some motherfuckers. But her film cares about people, it’s democratic in its airing of voices, it recognizes difference, and it doesn’t have an answer. It’s a punk rock interrogation of radical culture and politics, and it’s as smart an independent film as any made in the last 50 years.

The title is taken from the Red Krayola song that plays no fewer than four times, always as a propulsive political force and a connecting thread. The pulsing of the song is the movie’s backbeat; watch the movie twice, and I guarantee the opening notes will make you want to beat up a rapist. As you should.

Trailer:

Song:

You can watch the whole movie here.

Reflecting, in 1967, on the experience of seeing old movies on TV, notorious curmudgeon/amazing writer Pauline Kael wrote, “Horror and fantasy films … are surprisingly effective, perhaps because they are so primitive in their appeal that the qualities of the imagery matter less than the basic suggestions. Fear counts more than finesse, and seeing horror films is far more frightening at home than in the shared comfort of an audience that breaks the tension with derision.”

As someone who just watched a bunch of old (and not so old) horror movies, often alone, on a laptop (not even a TV, fancy or otherwise), I will second that on several counts.

It’s true that there’s something reassuring when everyone giggles at the right time – we’re all in this together, after all, we say, and it’s just a dumb movie. And that dumb movie doesn’t even need to look that good: it just needs to look good enough.

But when there’s no one around to giggle, no one to point out the continuity error or how goofy everyone is behaving, no one to second-guess your identifications or chuckle when you tense up, you might find yourself a little freaked out.

Kael’s larger points about movies in that essay – that trash accumulates, that we can’t tell an epic chase scene from a shitty chase scene thanks to the proportions of “the box,” that everything is so simultaneously available that we lose historical continuity and can’t even determine which pictures were considered “good” back in the day (“as it is,” Kael notes, “people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago”), that everything is leveled out and presented simply as “classic” because it is past … well, these things are true, too. More true now, in my opinion, than when she was writing.

Horror, however, likes the small screen. Scary movies work in close confines, and especially in the dark. They’re “primitive in their appeal,” often unconcerned with finer nuances, and aimed at something visceral and barely-remembered and impossible to shrug off. They tap into the veins of those who hang around too long, and keep lookout for those who can’t turn away. The good ones are out to get us.

Recently, my cousin asked me why I even watched “horror movies.”  I said we should come to a definition of terms (yes, I’m fun at parties). I sensed he was talking about gore, about exploitation, about “extreme cinema,” I guess – basically, what’s with all the stabbing and the eyeballs and the nasty shit really, c’mon? But underneath that, the question was … why do you want to be voluntarily scared?

Personally, I don’t get very enthusiastic about the stabbing and think most movies would do better without it (apart from the sweet opportunities for effects folks to do their thing, which is worthy and rad), and that’s only become clearer over the course of watching movies this past month. I have enormous respect for the technicians and artists who make gross-out scenes happen, but I generally am not that enthused to be constantly grossed out at the movies. (The works of David Cronenberg are hereby exempted.) This wasn’t always true; maybe I’ve gone soft. My thinking is there’s plenty of carnage to be had in the real world.

But the latter is a reasonable question. You could watch a funny movie. It could be sad or bittersweet or melancholy or wistful, it could be inspiring or galvanizing or revolutionary. It could speak to your better nature, or amaze you with its beauty. Why watch a scary movie?

My basic answer: I watched Night of the Living Dead on network television when I was 6 or 7, and it blew my mind. I was certain the zombies portrayed were coming for me. The people seemed more or less like people I knew – they weren’t hamming it up in a Universal product of the 30s or 40s, or whatever else Channel 20 was showing on Sundays at noon. They were regular folks, and they were scared.

So I was scared, too, and it didn’t wear off when the movie was done. That’s an accomplishment – what was the last thing you read, heard, or watched that kept you up at night, thinking about it? What was the first thing? To me, as a child, Night of the Living Dead was art that mattered.

As an adult, and presumably a more informed movie viewer, that basic feeling is still there, along with an awareness of other nuances and connections. Watching these older films – the Val Lewton movies, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Vampyr especially – and newer ones – Peeping Tom, Sisters, Santa Sangre, Trouble Every Day, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 – is to be reminded of all the ways we cloak what we have to say, rework identities to fit with the situation, and manipulate those around us. We make monsters of the other, and of ourselves. We can’t help it. And horror movies know this.

Horror also tells us: If you can’t name a thing, it becomes a monster. And this is a problem: there are a lot of things we can’t name. So there must be many monsters, and they definitely aren’t just outside. Some are basic aspects of who we are as a species, society, and individual. The monsters are real, and they’re coming for us.

We kind of knew it was true, but no one wanted to say it, except for horror movies. And it’s nice to be told the truth every once in a while.

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Martyrs is not a good movie.

No, I will go further: Martyrs is a bad movie, born of false pretense, disingenuously presented, and executed poorly. It is the only movie on this list I outright disliked. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t think it was so smart. It is not smart. It’s a stupid exercise foisted on the gullible for shitty reasons.

Here is the basic plot: A shadowy cabal kidnaps women to torture them into a state of grace, what they refer to as “martyrdom.” One can tell the martyred by the hollow look in their eyes as they stare to the Heavens, having emptied themselves of all hope. This cult wants to create a martyr and keep her alive long enough to relate what she sees before she dies. (It’s always a “she,” we’re told: women are somehow more inclined to grace through suffering. Why? Who knows, let’s keep this shitshow moving along.)

 

We’re introduced to these nice folks by way of an actually scary plotline involving a tortured child who escapes, but we only find out what it was about later. In the early scenes, the movie is filled with promise: is there anything scarier than a wounded child running away from some unknown horror house? I vote no. And right up until the middle of the movie, Martyrs is scary.

When we discover the plot underlying everything, the movie caves in on itself, in the most despicable possible ways. Scene after scene simply repeats itself: A ladder descends to an industrial basement. Our protagonist, now grown, is tied up and beaten. Dissolve. Our protagonist pisses herself. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist is beaten for a while. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist’s head is sheared, painfully. Dissolve. I think this continues for several hours, though that seems impossible given the movie’s alleged running time.

Its intentionally punishing in its aesthetic, and we’re implicated as viewers. The film desperately wants to be called “extreme cinema,” and get both arthouse and Fangoria points for being “willing to go there.” What is it actually? It is 30 minutes of a woman being punched in the head, then skinned alive, with some half-assed pseudo-science and a cop-out ending.

There’s nothing there; the profound eschatological inquiry is just a cover, like we knew it was from the start. This is a movie about, above all else, a woman getting punched in the face, and us watching her get punched in the face.

I’m not squeamish about these things in movies. There is violence in the world, and movies are part of the world. It’s not even the nature of the violence, or its targets, that bothered me here: it’s the idea that we would learn something, or feel something, when the movie has absolutely no interest in teaching or imparting feeling. Its producers and directors know there is a built-in audience for literally anything violent and over-the-top, but they aren’t content with exploitation. They mean to make art.

They fail at that, and at many other things. In the end, the movie they made is a nasty, mean-spirited fraud.

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Atomic reactors! Radiation and mysterious crop failures! A secret joint U.S.-Canadian nuclear operation aimed at the Russians!

Fiend Without A Face is definitely a Cold War artifact, and laughably silly more often than not, but it’s also really well made and engaging. It touches on public fears which haven’t gone away, though the details have changed, and includes an admirable number of viewpoints without belittling them.

It also features sometimes-invisible monsters made of brains and spinal cords, who strangle you and suck out your essence to live. Which is awesome.

The film concludes with an old-fashioned shoot-out – basically, a brain massacre – and the props leak what appears to be grape jam.

I enjoyed this movie.

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A commenter on The Dissolve introduced me to the notion of the “perpendicular sequel” – a film that draws from but doesn’t interfere with the original, and launches off in a different direction. If ever there were a movie that fits the bill, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

For one thing, Freddy Kreuger, the child-killing villain from the first film who showed up in the dreams of the town’s youngsters to exact revenge for his own murder, is no longer interested in terrorizing all of them – he now haunts one boy alone. That boy, Jesse, is tormented by him, and it becomes clear that Freddy is some kind of manifestation of Jesse’s own turmoil. Sure, Jesse moved into the house across the street from where we watched another boy die in the first film, but there are other traumas at play.

This is a huge departure from the mythology that launched the series, not but one installment ago. It’s actually kind of amazing that this movie ever got made at all: Most direct sequels stick to at least the bare-bones structure of their predecessor. Not so here: Freddy’s revenge, such as it is, lands directly on poor Jesse, who is left to grapple with a whole host of identity issues, given that Freddy has now decided to literally live inside him. He’s a dark, threatening aspect of Jesse’s psyche (and, apparently, stomach), which must be repressed if Jesse’s going to fit in at school, get a girl, live a happy suburban life.

Some people say that this is the out-and-out gayest film of the franchise, possibly of all horror movie franchise entries in history. Those people are right. You would have to be willfully, steadfastly opposed to the obvious to ignore it.

This is a movie in which the gym coach frequents leather bars (or “S&M joints,” according to one character, who is made to do punishing laps and push-ups for the coach’s amusement – “That’s just how he gets his rocks off,” he points out; later, the same character mentions to Jesse that the coach “likes pretty boys like you”). Later, the coach is flayed to death with jump ropes in the school shower, naked and bound, after tennis ball canisters aggressively ejaculate in all directions. This is a movie where our protagonist runs away from the female love interest to hide out in his buddy’s bedroom, who incredulously, mockingly notes, “There’s a girl waiting for you and you want to spend the night with me.” This is a slasher movie in which only men die – is it the only one where this is true? – and, notably, only those men who embody either danger or desire for our Jesse. In case things weren’t clear enough for the audience, the filmmakers helpfully add this: As Freddy fights his way out of Jesse’s stomach (in one of the genuinely gross, fun scares in a movie that seems to have forgotten it’s supposed to include those at all), Jesse mournfully cries out, “He’s INSIDE ME, and he WANTS TO TAKE ME AGAIN.”

It’s all incredibly amusing and campy, actually, but the plot beats could be read in a deeply homophobic way. Does Jesse triumph over carnal desire by eliminating the boys he might kind of want to bang, and secure redemption from his terrible, terrible urges with the help of Lisa, who would in any other horror movie be the Final Girl? (Here, she’s simply a calm port in the storm, a promise of normalcy, and a possible salvation from Freddy’s torment.) Or, as Freddy cackles at him in the end, driving back into the desert where the movie began, has Jesse just postponed dealing with the embodiment of a power that can’t be willed away so easily?

Is this taking A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge a little too seriously? In a word, yes. But the film, like a lot of modern American horror, is a mythic treatment of adolescent confusion, played out for giggles and scares. It also has absolutely nothing to do with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, and is sort of lovable for that reason alone. (Not to mention Jesse’s sweet dance moves.)

One thing is clear: there aren’t too many movies like it. And given the vehement, bordering on disgusted, rejection of it by the series’ fan base – who were decidedly less interested in a protagonist grappling with his sexuality than people being cut up with razor fingers or drowned in water beds – there probably won’t be another.

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There are few more iconic images in cinema than Frankenstein’s monster rising from the operating table or, in its sequel, his bride standing straight and horrified, with the lightning shock of white through her towering hair. In fact, they might be so iconic that no one watches the movies anymore – we already know what happens. Specifically, the monster rises from an operating table, and his bride has crazy hair. Done and done.

I made sure to include these in the list because I honestly can’t remember if I ever watched them from start to finish. They both played on regular rotation on television throughout my childhood – Sundays, Channel 20, in the afternoon, along with westerns and a grab-bag of other old films the network had been able to grab cheaply, one presumes. I remembered them like dreams, or like pictures I saw on someone else’s mantel, in a house I haven’t been to in a while.

Watching them now, I learned a few things: 1) Bride is significantly funnier and better than the first one; 2) director James Whale did a fairly honest transposition of Mary Shelley’s novel, making the monster more a tragic than a diabolical figure; and 3) even from the start, horror movies have been intensely concerned about gender, identity, and transformation.

Bride of Frankenstein significantly improves on the rather by-the-numbers adaptation of Frankenstein. To its credit, it attributes the story to “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley;” in the original, it says it’s based off a tale from “Mrs. Percy Shelley,” which is fucked on a number of levels. That’s not the only nod towards feminism in the film (not to mention basic decency), but it’s comforting to see it on the screen first thing.

There’s not much to talk about in the story – Frankenstein’s monster desires a companion, his creator wants nothing to do with it thanks to the earlier murders, a mad scientist is only too happy to help – but it’s a structural masterpiece (built around Mary Shelley, slyly knitting before a fire, telling Lord Byron and her husband the rest of the story, which she says she hadn’t yet published), and the script gives everyone plenty of room to breathe. It’s far less stilted than the original: the monster’s efforts to gain language are funny, his failures to communicate are poignant, and the transformation scene at the end deserves every bit of its fame.

Whale, an openly gay man in early Hollywood (and so something of a rarity), made these classics of misunderstood outsiders, inherently suspected “deviants” rejected and misunderstood by mainstream society, who piece together identities, struggle to define themselves, and long for community in a hostile world. Throughout the month, the movies I watched kept coming back to these themes, in overt and oblique ways. Horror – located in the body, seeking to generate visceral thrill, concerned above all with flesh, its vulnerability and capacity for transformation – lends itself particularly well to symbolic treatments of questions of identity and sexuality. In Frankenstein and especially The Bride of Frankenstein, these questions bounce around without being answered, but both films make a wise decision: they treat them in passing, and focus on presenting something new and fun and relatable and scary. The themes are so crucial to the genre that they don’t need to be underlined – they’ll always be there. We couldn’t avoid desire if we wanted to.

Ok, it is less impressive and thematically appropriate than “31 Horror Movies For October,” but that’s how it ended up.

What can I say? Life gets in the way, your stolen internet goes dark, you leave town for a few days, no one wants to watch horror movies at a wedding – many things can happen. On the other hand, 26 seems like a decent effort to me, so I don’t feel too ashamed.

These were all first views for me, or at least first intentional views as an adult – I’m pretty sure I’d already seen Frankenstein, for instance, but it’s hard to tell: the imagery is so iconic that it’s almost like a childhood vacation you aren’t sure you really remember, rather than simply the pictures of it on your parent’s mantel. In any case, the whole point was to watch horror movies I hadn’t seen, or at least hadn’t watched. (Write-ups added as I get to them.)

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