Category Archives: Parnormal Pop Culture

American Horror Story: Coven – “Boy Parts” Review

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Following the smash premiere of the third season of “American Horror Story” (the numbers registered at five and a half million viewers, more than doubling season two’s finale), episode two, “Boy Parts,” hits the ground running, as the season’s plots begin to take off (like a witch on a broomstick, perhaps?). But I’m already starting to wonder… what’s on the way? Check out the full review over at ParanormalPopCulture.com  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap-boy.html

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American Horror Story: Coven – Premiere Review

FX_AHS_ImageGallery_0000_02Catch the premiere of American Horror Story: Coven last night? Spoiler: it was fantastic. Still trending on Twitter, if I saw correctly. So where’s the season going? What’s working and what’s worrying? Check out my review up at ParanormalPopCulture.com:  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap.html?spref=tw

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Found-Footage: Gimmick or Genre?

I stumbled across a trailer today for the upcoming horror flick, Skinwalker Ranch.

And, as I watched it, I was torn, almost scene by scene. Part of me rolled my eyes. The handheld IR footage shot, running through the night. The screams. The setting up of DVR cameras in the corners of rooms to capture “ghosts.” People getting blown across a room. The tagline “Inspired by True Events.” But the other part of me was gleeful.

Much of that response comes down to the found footage aspect of the movie. Found footage being the hand-held, shaky, everybody-dies-and-someone-later-publishes-the-footage type movie.

The Rise and Goal of Found Footage

What made found-footage brilliant was in the way it minimized the line between reality and fiction for the audience’s experience. Which, particularly as it applies to horror, is instrumental in milking the visceral response to a movie.

This advent was primarily due to the movement toward smaller, digital cameras. Though designed first for the public, and sneered upon by much of Hollywood (who produced high quality movies on film, firmly establishing the difference between amateur and “PROFESSIONAL”), many more avant-garde filmmakers were dabbling in the wide possibilities that shooting on digital cameras could open up in terms of creativity, particularly in terms of breaking down the separation between audiences and films. The goal was to make the experience as immersive as possible, to not only translate ideas, but to translate experiences. This is more specifically explored in Keanu Reeve’s documentary film Side by Side.

It was arguably 1999’s Blair Witch Project that brought a household awareness to the found-footage style, which offered the perfect blend of reality and fiction. Releasing the movie independently, with some early internet hype further confusing the lines between the produced nature of the movie, audiences were utterly thrown as to the reality of the movie. How much more frightening, that this could be real?

The Goal of Horror Movies

Now, the horror genre falls into two main categories of intention: to challenge a viewer intellectually, and to scare the shit out of people. The latter is usually the goal. Which is unfortunate because horror provides opportunity to introduce us to new ideas, new extremes: to unsettle us, to challenge us, to stretch the human condition to its limits.

As we explored before, the found-footage style makes a movie seem more real because it feels like it could be a home movie that anyone we know could have filmed. It could have happened next door. This helps scare the shit out of people.

Many people love to harp on found-footage because it doesn’t scare them. As with any popular fiction that plays with this reality between lies and truth, people are fairly desperate to assert themselves in the midst of controversy. It’s very important to people to not be wrong, and to not be scared.

Manly, right? You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You can’t be scared at a movie. And you knew what was real. You weren’t wrong. You were right all along.

I’m widely generalizing, but that’s the layer of our society that horror films provoke as a reaction. This is exactly why so many horror movies are so widely received, with some people loving them, others hating them. Everyone has different fights that make them tick, and many people like to bad-mouth them because the movie either didn’t make them tick, or because they want to sound tough.

Ever been to a midnight horror flick with a bunch of college kids? They talk the whole way through the movie because they’re trying to be too tough to shut up and engage: to be scared.

So, with any challenging way of telling a story as true, there’s going to be backlash that one: it wasn’t scary, and two: i knew it wasn’t real all along.

Because found-footage now is associated with a kind of truth, but no longer seriously pretends to be true, audiences are very reactionary, finding it more annoying than inventive.

The Nuance of Found Footage

This is where the nuance comes in. Some people can very easily get motion sick, staring at a large screen, too immersed. Like 3D movies, some people physically can’t handle it. Which is fine. For the rest of us, we can experience that okay, so long as it’s done right.

One of the popular lines of critique in the found-footage style is an easy backswing against the original intention. Because it originally felt so real, because it felt like it could have been made by any Joe on the street, now people think that, seriously, any Joe on the street could make such a movie.

Which, of course, is relatively inaccurate.

Not everyone can make a movie. It’s hard work and there’s a ton of technical know-how.

This is not to confuse the fact that many people can make a bad movie. This is altogether common.

But the fact that so many bad found-footage movies exist is not to be confused with the found-footage style being inherently bad. That’s what they call a logical fallacy.

The nuance comes in that found-footage movies can still be artistic. They can still have beautiful shots, even if that footage is “accidentally” or “unintentionally” captured by some bamboozling character. The cutting and filming of the movie can be done in a way that looks haphazard, but is intentionally filmed in a way that doesn’t upset the audience until the filmmaker wants it to.

One of the great nuances of film is in where and when to cut the film. Many times in a poorly cut piece of video, you find yourself annoyed with the camera for lingering on one shot when you’d rather have it on another.

A recent example: this IGN interview from Comic Con this year, in which Jane Levy and Fede Alvarez discuss the magnificent Evil Dead remake.

At around the minute forty mark, the interviewers ask Jane Levy their first question, while the trailer plays. Inserting a trailer into an interview is fine, but the viewer has a few ingrained expectations. There are certain elements that need to be established. The first time Jane Levy speaks, I want to see her speaking (and not just because I find her insanely attractive). It grounds the audience in an association, and we can learn how the nuances of speech relate to action and presentation. We get a complete picture. But in this clip, when we finally get done with the trailer, we linger uncomfortably long at 2:00 on the interviewers, who aren’t speaking, and we still haven’t gotten a shot of Jane speaking.

Which I’m sure is a technical issue. They probably were trying to swing a camera to get her on the shot. It was a likely amateur mistake. Shooting live video is hard. The point here isn’t the poor quality of sixty seconds of interview footage. The point here is that audience expectation drives the shot, and if we don’t see what we have been taught to expect to see, it will drive us crazy. We want to see a character when they speak. Every shot has to be chosen against all other possible shots. We have to know that what we’re looking at is the most important component of the scene, whether that’s the character speaking, a character responding, or a shot that illustrates some kind of developing action in the background, we have to trust filmmakers, and most times we do.

But this can also be used to great effect when it operates against our expectation. How many times do you find yourself sitting in a horror movie, pissed as hell because the character is stumbling around in the dark, and we’re only give a tight shot of her face, and we can’t see what’s behind her — we can’t see what’s on the other side of the door — we, like her, don’t know what’s coming. But all we want to do is scream at the camera to pull wide and give us a bit of security.

That’s good filmmaking. It’s a bit of a standard example, but that’s one way of building tension literally through the shots that you choose.

And the found-footage style, particularly in that it’s becoming a facet of horror-films above all else, is extremely dependent on this type of thinking. What is seen and what is unseen, in terms of the shot, is crucial to building dread and tension. Debatably it’s even more crucial in this genre, because the camera shot is what the character is experiencing

Genre or Gimmick?

“Gimmick” is one of those words that has layers of pejorative meanings. It can be spoken of as both positive and negative. Usually, we tend to speak of a gimmick as a bullshit device that has no purpose or meaning other than drawing attention.

In terms of found-footage, most people have concluded that it’s a gimmick because it’s a cheap way to make the audience unsettled and nauseous, and a cheaper way to provide jump scares (back to the idea about the nuances of shot).

Found-footage has become transparent. Singly, it’s because there have been SO many movies that employ this technique. What used to be clever (the lines between real and lie, the nuance of shot, etc) have now become expected and dry.

But I don’t think that makes something a gimmick. That makes it gimmicky in the sense that it’s a device that’s become meaningless, but you can make that argument about almost any aspect of film. Any genre can be overdone to the point of being predictable, dry, transparent, and only as an attention-grabber.

I’d argue that found-footage as a style is not inherently meaningless, and can be used as a very intentional device. And, if it can be used as meaningful, it’s not inherently a gimmick, and can be applied with skill and purpose.

See, found footage in its first incarnation was used to break down the lines between lie and reality, which is a big deal in art. As we go, it became a compelling device for a fresh take on presenting a story. It made its way to television, primarily in the comedy genre, manifesting as a blend of mockumentary in order to make the “real-world” situations as “real” as possible which in turn enhanced the awkwardness. The perceived reality of the footage has the exact same emotional effect as horror. JJ Abrams used found-footage as a storytelling device shockingly well in Cloverfield, cutting back and forth between “real-time” footage and old, recorded footage being taped over, which strung along a story in flashback and realtime deftly, and with meaning. The Last Exorcism, though going off the rails by the end, used the genre both for scares, but also as a way to illustrate artifice, to bring the audience’s attention to construction and truth while examining the “reality” of possession amidst fakery. Most directly, Grave Encounters used it — albeit shallowly — to play with reality and artifice on ghost hunting programs. The Fourth Kind used it to study truth behind lies (behind more lies) and the artifice of a Hollywood movie.

Despite being a perfect gimmick for jump scares, the found-footage style is a perfect device to illustrate possibility. And so long as you’re operating within a genre (supernatural films), a big recurring theme is possibility. “What if this could happen? How bad could it be and what would it look like?”

Paranormal Activity used it, brilliantly, to not pretend to be real, but to make a fake haunting feel like a “real” haunting. Though horror movies have moved so far beyond it (with their shock-scares and gore), many people are terrified in their own homes at the smallest sounds and sights. Paranormal Activity, instead of pretending to be real, employed the found footage device to emulate a reality that struck home much more effectively than a standard shot-by-shot movie. Paranormal Activity reminded us that even though we know the found-footage style is no longer real, it still feels more real, which is exactly why we’re seeing so many of these types of movies right now, from [Rec] to The Chernobyl Diaries to V/H/S to Troll Hunter to Chronicle and more. 

It’s a Genre

To have so many movies operating under this one artistic style, a way of presentation, a form, a subject matter, and in doing so with such variety, found-footage has been too intelligently used, and with too much variety, to write it off as a gimmick.

And to suggest that there’s nothing original left to be done in the genre is to discredit the smart filmmakers out there. Sure, we’re going to get crappy, generic, found-footage movie after found-footage movie, but the same can be said of horror movies in general. Or RomComs, or dramas, or comedies.

So I don’t write off movies when I see from their trailers that they’re found-footage. I know they’ll probably suck. I know they’ll probably not do anything innovative with their gimmick.

But I’ll still watch them if they look good. I’ll still be on the edge of my seat in the theater, waiting — not for the next jump scare — but for that hint of brilliance that could yet change everything.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

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Evil Dead. Gratuitous and Brilliant.

I was having nightmares about the new Evil Dead movie a week before I even saw it.

It wasn’t a particularly frightening trailer and I only ever have nightmares every few months. But obviously something about this movie was doing work.

I won’t read into it.

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Even still, I didn’t have very high hopes going into this one. A remake of a gratuitous and campy B-movie classic that looks like an utter squirm-fest for the squeamish. But I love the Evil Dead trilogy. And reviews have been relatively positive. And. Well. Jane Levy. 

But five minutes in and I was blown away.

The camerawork was phenomenal. The shots were gorgeous. It started out atmospheric and moody and was happy to linger within the setting before diving into the violence.

What impressed me most was the confidence of this film.

In a time when most horror films are any director with a camera with a camera who’s seen a jump scare or two and may (or usually not) have a good script (Cough…. Cough.), this guy, Fede Alvarez, stepping behind the camera for his first full feature, knows what he’s doing. He keeps the camera on his scares. He knows his atmosphere is well-constructed enough that it breathes and seethes. He knows that his scares are violent and hard. He has the confidence of a good script and story and it’s an epic story to tell.

Which is refreshing, not simply because horror movies suck these days.

But because this is a remake.

Well. Companion movie.

Well. Sequel.

Evil Dead is a strange blend of what’s come before, and what’s new, and what’s rebooted. A different movie, different characters: same story. In much the way that Evil Dead 2 was sequelesque to the original The Evil Dead, Evil Dead is sequelesque to them both.

And it’s so elegantly done. In fact, it’s where half the genius of the work comes from. How does a writer/director adapt a campy b-movie classic to the modern screen? He blends the perfect amounts of gratuitous violence and gore with echoes of what’s come before. What better way to make the (let’s be honest, distinct) Exorcist references blend with the modern? Make Regan put a razor blade through her tongue.

Every moment you got to see the strings (which is to say, every time it felt too over the top) was a seamless nod to the original. The reboot nods right and left to the originals (molesting trees, the infected-arm, the chainsaw-hand) exactly as you’d expect and hope. 

The dialogue was–bear with me–perfectly terrible. The director more than made up for it, and the cheesy, flat lines (“I’m not going to become Hell’s bitch!”) added flavor without taking away from the intensity or suspense.

I didn’t believe it was possible. But there you have it. A blend of the lovably-terrible classics with a modern vibrancy.

When no one in the audience laughed at the yawning POV shot through the woods, I knew they’d done it absolutely right.

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Yes, I would have preferred a bit more pacing, a bit more atmosphere, a bit more milking before hitting the fan. But you know, it’s not that kind of movie.

Yes, I would have preferred a little more philosophy and depth as always. But it’s not that kind of movie. It’s too busy being GODDAMN EPIC.

Yes, the violence was stomach-churning. The camera refuses to look away (that confidence bit, remember). And the Evil Deads were always known as blood-fests. But where before it was camp, today it’s real. It’s visceral. And it has to be to keep true to what came before it (while staying fresh, do you see?)

This movie, for what it was (a reboot of a classic b-horror movie directly in line with the possession/slasher movies of the last forty years), was ASTOUNDING. and BRILLIANT. and hands down a MASTERPIECE. It fully realized the genre, embracing everything that came before it and elevating it to another level.

This film gets an

A+

BUT! Should you go see it?

Maybe not.

If you’re not into the old Evil Deads, if you’re not into modern slasher movies, or violent tongue-splitting, arm-cutting, cheek-slicing, eye-stabbing, hand-ripping movies: Don’t go see it. It’s disgusting and there’s little else to redeem it for you. It’ll seem like blood for the sake of blood.

But if you’re familiar with the classics, if an epic power-punch of a visceral, raw, bloody, fiery horror film is up your alley. GO FUCKING SEE THIS MOVIE.

(Note: I’d say wait two weeks though. Go on a Tuesday night or hit up one of the cheap theaters. See it by yourself or with a close buddy. It’s not a Friday night drinking comedy with your buddies like the original trilogy. This one is for taking seriously. Don’t go on a night with a packed house and a row of 25 theater kids who think they’re groupies because they have Evil Dead hoodies from that one time they put on the Evil Dead Musical at their school.

When only THREE people in the whole theater cheered when she picks up the chainsaw, I WAS OFFENDED. When the girl in front of me said she was scared to watch this because she’s terrified of zombies, I WAS OFFENDED (it’s a possession movie, dammit!). When homeboy laughed at EVERY establishing shot, funny, scary, or otherwise, I WAS OFFENDED.

If any of these things would offend you too: GO SEE THIS MOVIE).

Karl out.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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American Horror Story Season 4 and Season 5 Brainstorm!

News broke this last week that the new season of American Horror Story was going to be subtitled Coven. (For those of you folks who’ve been googling season 4, Coven is in fact the 3rd season of AHS and premieres in the fall of 2013). This follows on the heels of the news that was announced, at the end of last season, that the season would be taking place primarily in the deep south, much of it being filmed in New Orleans.

This has me excited, because I love to wonder about the themes, settings, and frights that this show will be supplying next.

It’s these things that makes the show brilliant: their handling of social and political and philosophical themes; their refreshing new storylines and sets each season; and the gritty horror that they bring to television.

So, following my blogs last season, in which I wondered at the themes and the developments in Asylum, I’m now broadening my scope. I’m thinking ahead to seasons 4 and 5 (which would air in the falls of 2014 and 2015. But of course, in the world of television, future seasons are never sure until they’re ordered. But I like to dream, and American Horror Story killed it with the ratings for its first two seasons, giving FX some steam to compete with other cable biggies a la Walking Dead).

In the first season, we covered the Murder House story. The marketing color was RED. American GOTHIC. The themes explored were drawing from decades of recent Americana. Murder. Abortion. Adultery. Divorce. Sex. School shootings. Drugs. And a healthy dose of ghosts to boot.

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In the second season, we covered the Asylum story. The marketing color was WHITE. The themes ranged from religion, to science. Gay rights. Women’s rights. The masculine and the feminine. Mother issues. Medicine. Mental illness. Abortion. Nature versus nurture. Inherent evil. Nazis. Human experimentation. Alien abduction.

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In the third season, we only know that it’s the Coven story. Which says to most of us: witches. And, shooting in the deep south, I can only guess at marketing colors: GREEN. (Update: Now that season three is in the wind, we see there was a tinge of green and a bit of hot pink, this being a season of feminism themes, amongst others) And I can only imagine themes and topics. Racism, I’d imagine? The mingling of “American” ideals with French and African? Magic. Producers have hinted at lots of sex and more comedy. Hoodoo? Voodoo? Vampires? Segregation?

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So now I’m looking past season three and into four and five. The uncharted, un-talked-about, not-even-rumored, here-be-dragons territory.

(I’m not even forecasting here. I’m just spit-balling).

So what’s left on the plate? The core of this show is explicitly American horror, in the sense of both location and theme. And so brainstorming future settings that hold quintessentially American horror roots is interesting. I’ve only come up with two, but my excitement to see the team’s handling of them is palpable.

I want to see season four hit the coast. I’m a sucker for coastal everything. Lighthouses. Water. Storms. Lovecraftian horror. The kind of sea-eroded history. The moodiness of such an atmosphere. Can you see it?

American-Horror-Story-Season-4-Promo-bannerPromos with only a fat phallic tentacle on a couple storm-beaten rocks? (Oh, you know it would be phallic too. Did you SEE the promo posters for Asylum?) An exploration of the mystery of the sea? A throwback historically to the old sailors, both in discovering America and also fishing. HEAVY draws on Lovecraft, if particularly the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Can you imagine? Cult-like worship of strange sea-creatures within the town? Half-man, half-animal hybrids? Perhaps some splicing/cloning scientific play with that?

Play on seclusion and religion and what makes up a homestead. Safety. Security. Especially in the times we live in. Themes perhaps of that question of security versus freedom.

And then into season five. I have a bias. I think every wonderful show on television only has five good seasons in it. It’s the best amount of time to complete a thorough arc before getting into redundant territory.

And what better way to wrap American Horror Story than a return to America’s roots? The midwest and the colonial east. Cornfields. Small towns. Colonial roots and revolution.

American-Horror-Story-Season-5-Promo-BannerAmericana at its heart. Late summer. Autumn. The harvest. Calling upon the classic horror themes we’ve seen season to season during the heart of Halloween. The imminent fears of the long winter. Questions of simple living, American values. Questions of population growth and food in the modern times but also in the past. Throw back to the land itself. Throw back to Native Americans and the disputes with them. Curses. Genocide. Animals and nature and scarecrows guarding the fields.

A sprinkling of Shyamalan with the Village. Some Hawthorne! Dark Romanticism. A bit of Young Goodman Brown. Some twisted Puritan values. Some Washington Irving, a bit of Ichabod Crane and headless horsemen.

The final iconic monster as something Native American. The revelation coming in that it’s not really a monster. Like all monsters, it’s misunderstood. And it’s usually only as monstrous as we make it.

What better way to wrap up the show than with a final look at the heart of America: where it all came from. How it was founded. The sins in the soil.

But I want to know what YOU guys think. Would that be a satisfying wrap to one of the smartest shows on television? Are there more choice selections of classic horrific Americana that I’m forgetting? What do you want to see in the upcoming seasons? Let me know in the comments section down below!

Update (Feb 6, 2014)

Murphy is still skating as to what in particular season 4 will be called, though I suspect we’ll be hearing about it in the next month or two. He’s already hinted that season four will be over many time periods, but mostly in the 50’s, it’ll be as comedic as season four (though five will be something very much out of left field, he says), and a bit gothic. Folks are having fun with the carnival/circus idea, but I quite like the Freakshow art that appeared in a quick google search. Freakshow is certainly a topic that would be VERY much American Horror Story’s alley, and would touch upon the gothic, but he’s already said fans haven’t nailed it yet, and that the circus idea was baseless.

In lieu of the updates, I wanted to update this post, since it still gets a lot of traffic (almost seventy comments? You guys are AWESOME. And some GREAT ideas that I’d completely overlooked).

I should point out that though there are at times a greenish tinge, AHS seems to have deviated from the color schemes I guessed about above. It seems the black, white, and red will always be their base, with a touch of extra color that might connect with the theme, the way green reflected the south and the witches. That obviously would influence my marketing brainstorms up above a bit.

I still love the ideas of a coastal, Lovecraftian AHS, as well as a midwestern corn-fields and autumnal feel, so I wanted to add some applicable titles and extra promo photo mockups, particularly since I’ve gotten a bit more deft at the photoshop in the year since I posted this bad boy. Enjoy, rock on, and hope to see you on the other side of season four!

(Seasons one through three courtesy and property of FX. Of course, the American Horror Story and FXs logos are copyright FX):

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As always,

My name is Karl Pfeiffer. I’m a writer, ghost hunter, and photographer. I won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then I’ve lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published my first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. I’m also a conceptual and portrait photographer working out of Northern Colorado. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Where American Horror Story S2 Went Wrong and Why it Was BRILLIANT

American Horror Story. Season two. Four months later.

I’m happy to say my hopes for this season were for the most part absolutely executed.

What it had going for it again was a brilliant season of discussion about hard modern American issues, everything from religion to the handling of mental patients, to the way we look at people with mental disorders. To issues like abortion and women’s rights and the role of women in society.

The show handles these issues with extremity and the kind of “othering” perspective gained by the horror lens that allows examination of different sides of these issues. Without being too spoilery, take for example, the instance of rape by a derranged serial killer. Is that an okay situation for an abortion? Or on the other hand, as the show demonstrates, what if choosing to do the “right” thing, keeping the baby to avoid more death, winds up turing on its head. By putting emphasis on nature instead of nurture, by studying this idea of essential evil, the show suggests that maybe even in the instance of doing the “right thing”, not the right thing happens.

That’s the real depth of post-modern, horror storytelling: turning issues on their heads, considering things differently and extremely and forcing you to think.

The season played with beautiful dynamics between monsters (traditionally embodying the deeper “American” horrors of the series rather than the purely grotesque ones). Here we have represented: religion and whether there can be such a situation as purity of the human being, and equally the ideas of pure evil in a human being; science as a method of salvation and destruction, embodied in the Aliens, used toward the end (the white light) to contrast the work of religion (the shadows); the masculine, represented by the serial killer Bloody Face, the idea of paternity and motherhood, of power of women, sexuality, and what that means to society.

Studying the play of these ideas is absolutely what makes American Horror story one of the most brilliant shows on television. AHS is the bar I set when I walk into a horror movie.

Now, this season did have some flaws.  I actually stopped watching for a number of weeks because I wasn’t into it. The season felt early on as if it bit off more than it could chew. Throwing in mental patients with deranged killers, with monsters, with aliens, and possession. It was too much. Tack on the upping of the more extreme camera work, action too fast paced to milk the scares, the level of in-your-face gore and horror — it felt that the writers had lost their way from the thematic hearts of the show.

But I returned, watched the rest of the season in two sittings, and was blown away by the end. The threads were brought together, thematically and practically balancing each other out, to arrive at a cohesive whole.

And, upon reflection, the cons wound up supporting the real positive work of the show.

Though the link from the aliens to the demonic wasn’t particularly elaborated on in terms of practicality (a la that god-awfully executed but brilliantly realized Fourth Kind), it was there subtextually and thematically. Aliens as scientific advancement. Religion as archaic advancement. Nazis somewhere in between. The dialogue throughout between the three.

One of my early problems with the season was the real claustrophobic feel. Creators would likely say they were going for that. It’s the idea of an Asylum. You’re cut off from the world. You don’t have a lot of freedom. It should be claustrophobic. They might say then my reaction was a sign of successful execution, where I felt it had more of a feel of being fake.

But this idea of fakery brings up a fascinating angle on it. This idea of what is real and not real. Of Camp. In storytelling, Camp as a genre, or style, is where you can see the strings, where you can see behind the scenes, where you have “reality” immediately presented to you, and you know to some extent what is not real. This places emphasis on what is more important: what’s real: Emotions; Story; Theme.

So in this case, that element of Camp that was played up more this season than last season, worked. I’m more of a fan of uber realism, myself. But here, whether intended or not, it was successful. The whole season we wind up questioning these ideas of reality: what’s real, what’s not real. Right down to the set-work and camera work.

The constant Dutch angles were a little much for me, but they contributed to that over-the-top style of horror that American Horror Story doesn’t shy from. That idea of Camp storytelling and essentially this in-your-face horror, where we’re not afraid necessarily to show the monsters we’ve made. We’re almost proud of them. We like to put them in your face, we want to talk about these issues. The hard issues.

That’s America.

And that I think is crucial and essential American Horror. And it wraps up the real success, even in what I didn’t like about it, for season two of American Horror Story.

Karl Pfeiffer is a writer, ghost hunter, and blogger/vlogger. He won the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s lead the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, studied religion and writing at Colorado State University, and published his first novel, Hallowtide, in October of 2012. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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The Cabin in the Woods Review

So. After realizing that my buddy did not want me to meet him at A cabin in THE woods at midnight, but did in fact want me to join him for a movie, I found myself in my seat at the theater and having one of the best cinema experiences I’ve had at a theater since I made out with a girl in the back row when I was in middle school. (You didn’t have a girlfriend in middle school, Karl. Shut it, haters, just go with it.)

One early review over at the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog by Aaron Sagers recommended that the less you know going into this movie, the better. For the most part I agree, so I’ll be brief.

All you need is your horror movie expertise. Then just settle in.

I laughed through the first ten minutes and then kept going. I’ve never laughed so much through a movie and been so engaged at the same time. This one challenges everything you’ve ever known about the horror genre, flips it on its head, then keeps flipping. Think Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil on crack (and without the trailer giving away the best laughs), which is saying something, because Tucker and Dale was, in its own right, doing the exact same thing. The meta turns from commentary to story, the thrills to laughs and back again, but doesn’t stop there.

It feels wrong to say it’s a comedy, even a black comedy, even a movie that you should laugh more than twice in. The trailer certainly doesn’t give away more than one laugh (IF YOU HAVEN’T YET, TAKE NOTE COMEDY TRAILER EDITOR TYPES) (though it does give away a bit or two away that it probably shouldn’t have mentioned, so, view at your own risk). But to get back on point, the comedic nature is pitch perfect. Camp is that genre that shows the strings, playing with the elements of meta-awareness, and often it’s funny as a necessity, and Cabin in the Woods is aware of this from the get-go. That’s real comedy. To blend the horrific and make it funny. To make a commentary. To show the strings and then cut them all to bits.

I can’t say much more without spoiling anything, which isn’t to say that this was a movie that hinged around spoilers (Any careful few minutes’ consideration of the trailer gets you well-prepped, and there are no gimmicky twists, just the ride as it unfolds–or better: unravels). But the charm that the movie brings (yes, it’s charm. Not romcom charm or drama charm, but horror movie brilliance charm, that glee in pointing at the screen to some clever allusion otherwise missed), it’s something I’d hate to ruin.

The subtlety and surprise are best left at that.

Four stars. A horror masterpiece. A breath of fresh air. Hope that a fresh story can be told, and that wonderful writing still exists in the cinema. Go see it right now.

Rebooting Night Stalker?!

What news is this?!

I see that Disney has hired Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright to helm a new Night Stalker movie? With Johnny Depp set to star and produce?

I’m still reeling on this one.

The Night Stalker was originally a 1972 movie that spawned a sequel and a short television run that was quite popular at the time. It starred Darren McGavin in the lead role of Carl Kolchak (if you don’t know your older tv stars, well, shame on you. He’s the dad on A Christmas Story. If you don’t know A Christmas Story, well.. Get off my lawn. Or I’ll shoot your eye out, kid). The original formula was quirky, using comedy and a lighthearted wit to present a reporter looking into some darker supernatural topics.

That said, ABC ran a remake in 2005 starring Irish actor Stuart Townsend. This version of the show took a much grittier spin on the show, replacing the original wit with a kind of brooding darkness that turned off many original fans instantly.

I might be, to date, the only person who respects the reboot–nay, who adores it. I think it was fucking brilliant. The show was elegant, with little musing monologues to book end the episodes to the haunting tunes of Philip Glass. The show was another X-Files spawn, but this time intensely thematic, twisting the ideas of evil from the supernatural to the natural, from serial killer types to the more ghostly, all the while questioning reality and the nature of inherent evil within the flawed antiheroic rebooted main character. It was doing some real intellectual work and I loved it. Then ABC cancelled it in the middle of a two part episode just before sweeps.

It didn’t work because the pilot episode was very, very slow, the show was under-marketed (a shame since it came out right about the same time as Supernatural and would have competed perfectly), and they dropped it in a time slot against the MLB playoffs, the Apprentice, and I possibly Grey’s, pitting it against the top shows on TV at the time, where the only people who knew about it were the fans of the old show, who saw the more serious twist as a butchery, and without giving it a chance, it shriveled up and died.

(Still it lives on anyway, at least for anyone who’s seen the inside of my car, who might take note of my homage that I hope one day some passing fan might notice and appreciate, and perhaps we’ll share a moment. And, well let’s be honest, if she’s hot and a Night Stalker reboot fan, I’ll probably just put a ring on it right then and there.)

The show still lives on over at Hulu.com, for free. I highly recommend it. I’ve embedded the fifth ep here:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And so I find myself in a bit of a strange place. Now we’ve got this NEW remake in the pipes, but I can’t help but get excited. Depp in the lead seems like it might take some getting used to but if I think hard enough, (we’ve seen him with the white bermuda hat in Rum Diaries or the like, aye?) I can start to see this old Kolchak.

Further, Edgar Wright is one of my most favorite directors of all time; no one else utilizes filmography to the comedic extend that he does. I’m in my comedy happy place any time I watch one of his films. So much cleverness and dry humor. I can’t get enough.

So my call on this?

HELL YES. Make this happen. I mean, like, tomorrow, please. It might take some getting used to, especially for me, as I was never very sold on the original version. I already know the fans are a tough sell, but I think the formula is SET, and can stand to be a fantastic modern addition. (Rants about remakes aside).

But what do you think? Were you a fan of the original series? Did you watch the reboot when it was on ABC six years ago? Will this be a hit or should they just let a sleeping dog lie? Sound off down below.

Woman in Black Review

Has it been so long? That I saw this trailer in the early fall of last year, frustrated at the wait through the winter months? And fittingly so, it was nearly a half hour drive through a couple inches of snow across town to get to the theater. While outside the snow painted Colorado Valentines against the trees, inside was a foggy gothic romance of different variety.

Out with it: I was underwhelmed. But that’s not to say it was bad.

The trailer promised eerie mansions, fog-enshrouded countryside, brambly graves, screaming spirits, candlelight, carriages, and heavy doses of shadows thick enough to part by hand and eeriness like blood in Kubrick doses.

And here you get exactly that. Which is really the biggest problem with the movie; it promises a return to the gothic, that brand of horror that seems so forgotten in favor of possessions, shaky found-footage, gore-fests, and teen death-flicks. But the Gothic alone is not enough–

for me anyway.

Which is to say, it’s great fun. We had a great audience, yelping at all the good parts, laughing afterward, and fully embracing the more lighthearted moments designed to lessen the oppressive mood. The first three quarters of the film is a theme park ride. You get about an hour of Daniel Radcliffe wandering the hallways looking frightened finding nothing behind doors but jump-scares. And oh, the jump scares. Entertaining if you treat all horror movies with the entertainment of Paranormal Activity, but doesn’t the Gothic demand something a bit more subtle? A steady building of dread through setting and mood alone? Rather than gimmicks? Add in a good dose of village people forcing shady conspiratorial looks that quickly turn obvious and you’ve got, well… a ghost flick.

The last half hour finally pulls back the curtain for screaming veiled ladies and dark-eyed children, which are well done. In fact, during one of the more climactic finales, I actually got chills–to which I’m not sure a horror movie has ever done before. Past that it’s a glorified episode from first season Supernatural. 

Anything deeper… there’s interplay between women in black and women in white, touches of the emotion of parenthood and the suffering of losing children and loved ones (a touch at best though; indeed for as much loss as there is in the movie, the director seemed to think the brooding landscape alone was enough emotional study than to really dwell on the drama of what any one of these townsfolk or main characters was going through). There’s cinematography that really only leans on the spectacle of the setting. Even the deeper themes were overt, beating us over the head with ideas of lost souls and hope of reunions beyond the grave.

And then there’s Daniel Radcliffe, who though his acting was decent enough, looks young enough to be only parading pretend in his father’s suit, let alone donning period costume and having four-year old children.

Yeah, it’s another horror film giving horror a mediocre name. Yeah, it’s another film that could have done far more, taking the gothic to a new level for modern audiences, playing heavier with themes or emotions or more intensely on the stresses that Radcliffe’s Kipps undergoes in the struggle to keep hold of his son and sanity in the face of constant mortal reminders.. But all we really get of that is longing looks at hand-drawn calendar pages and clumsy hugs.

If you dig the gothic, you’ll go away satisfied. But if it’s an intellectual wine and chocolate course you’re hoping for, looks like you have to settle for Barefoot and Hershey’s Dark this time.

B-

Top 10 Scary Stories

Karl Pfeiffer’s Top 10 Scary Stories

Originally posted at ParanormalPopCulture.com

 

As I pull out books from the shelves, starting with Straub’s American Fantastic Tales anthology and then Palahniuk’sHaunted, it’s quickly apparent I’ll need an energy drink over a glass of wine for this one; I’ll be up late tonight, and not solely because it will take a bit of time to reconnect with these old friends. See, before I began I even had to make a round through the house above me under the guise of grabbing my laundry to double check the doors and the windows. Just in case.

That’s the thing about scary stories, see? They strike those deep-seated fears within all of us that register something as primal as love or joy. That’s why we read horror stories, isn’t it? To get in touch with that depth again. To wonder. The true scares, the ones that keep us up at night, question the very world around us and maybe even our own experience of it.

The tales that scare me the most are the ones that could be true.

The best of such stories work because they don’t stray far from the very room where you’re reading this site. The best stories are the kind that you can’t write off as just fiction, because they leave you glancing at the window, at the shadow on the wall, asking: Is there something in the darkness? What of the darkness itself? Where does that darkness come from? How does it grow? And perhaps, scariest of all; could it be in me too?

Are you brave enough to look with me? If so, continue forward to the scariest stories to keep you up at night, and probably during the day. They aren’t all paranormal, per se, but they are sure to make a roadmap of shivers all over your spine.

The Man in the Black Suit
By Stephen King
King’s story of a man named Gary looking back on a chance encounter with the Devil himself while alone, fishing in the woods, is immediately reminiscent of another timely classic, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” but with a modern feel more immediate and more sinister. If you didn’t grow up with stories like these, I can guarantee you’ve spent time alone in the wilderness and felt that chill follow your spine. If your scream falls in a forest when it’s just you and the devil to hear, does it make a sound?

The Thing on the Doorstep
By HP Lovecraft
Though Lovecraft is known, quite famously, in horror circles, it’s due in large part to his Cthulu mythologies, which center on a race of god-like alien entities that care as little for us as we do about the ants skittering beneath our feet. Because few of us have come face to face with Cthulu (or any other god himself, for that matter), I find that “The Thing on the Doorstep” better and more subtly communicates Lovecraft’s grasp of those things behind the scenes. A tale about a man whose wife may not actually be inhabited by his wife’s sould, the “Thing” hint at ideas of witchcraft and body snatching that, when looked at, can drive a man insane at their very suggestion.

Guts
By Chuck Palahniuk
A pool, a frisky teenage boy and his Pearl Diving activities. I’m not sure why, in my right mind, I’d ever publicly put this story on a list of recommended tales. Then I remember this is not a list of recommended stories, it’s a list of the scariest – and this story is damn scary. It’s scary in the way that people like watching the Saw movies for scares; in the way that makes our stomachs do those funny flips when we’ve just had an unexpected collision with the asphalt and we’re assessing ourselves for damages (you know the way you can’t stop trembling?). That’s this story in a nutshell. It’s gross. You might be sick. But you’ll love the fact that you’re still in one piece after reading it.

Voluntary CommittalBy Joe Hill
Where do people go when they disappear forever? It is those dark folds in the world that get me, the kind that induce the kind of Lovecraftian, House of Leaves horror that keeps me awake in the dark. We all built forts as children, and most of us came out. That may not be the case in this story. And really, is it so strange to think that with the right mind, in the right basement, the right fort could open a door to somewhere else entirely?

Bunny is Good Bread
By Peter Straub
A master at presenting the darkest underbelly of our world, Straub’s prose can wrap you into back alleys and daytime matinees and hospice bedrooms, and transpose these places with hell itself. Straub is a writer you read with your gut. Repulsed at humanity? Fair. I’d go so far as to call it transcendent. I don’t know about any netherworld bleeding through, but reality itself in his stories seems almost to break down around you while reading. In this one about someone so abused as a child they live life as if in a movie, the reader is reminded that often the most terrifying realizations we come to in life are the ones that change the way we see the world … and maybe the demons within it.

The Events at Poroth Farm
By T.E.D Klein
A taste of a culture beyond us despite co-existing in our own backyards. A dash of the persistence of nature, crawling. A touch of religious fanaticism just enough to hide a darkness until it breaks and is unleashed … This famous story touches on a reader much like you who realizes that horrors are not happening only in his scary books, but all around him. Klein knows how to get under your skin (indeed, fittingly so), and wreaks a kind of gradual havoc with your senses so slowly you don’t realize your nerves are shredded and you’ll never look at the bugs outside your own window – or your neighbors – in quite the same way ever again.

The Fall of the House of Usher 
By Edgar Allan Poe
Need I say more? What makes Poe classic is his genre-defining approach to his subject matter, weaving the gothic feel of his stories into every element he describes. Maybe there’s nothing supernatural about a thunderstorm, but with his words, there could be. Likewise he puts in your head the idea that maybe it’s not entirely unnatural (nor unfitting), given the right storm and the right brooding (sentient, even?) mansion, for all that’s dead, alive, creepy, or comforting, to get confused.

The Lottery
By Shirley Jackson
There’s no supernatural elements in this story, which make it all the scarier. It’s scary in the way mob mentality is scary. The way archaic tradition is scary. The way one day the universe could point its finger and say, “you,” and while hundreds look on, you’re helpless against it. This classic short story has influenced many great writers and is examines how sometimes you can win and still horribly lose in a small town with cherished traditions. Jackson, time and again, showed us that horror is a dish best served on a bed of nuances, subtleties, foreshadowing and maybe luck of the draw.

The Damned ThingBy Ambrose Bierce
Brief, quick, to the point. Maybe creatures of a certain color exist just out of eyeshot, an ultraviolet color that seems to blend in with the rest of the environment around it, maybe they don’t. But the idea that you’re being stalked by an invisible beast for two months before it does you in … well, the local coroner in this story might deem it a mountain lion; I deem it damn scary. Just because you close your eyes doesn’t mean the world has gone away.

The Book of Blood
By Clive Barker
For the final story on my list, I felt it fitting to break the rules, to take that fine line between our concrete reality and the other, and to shatter it. In the same way that the parapsychologists and fake medium in the story seek to break boundaries and discover truly what lies beyond in a haunted, I’ll let this last act as a transition, or introduction (as it introduces Barker’s most classic and macabre work), from the world of creeping fear and possibility, to outright study of fear itself.

Be brave, enjoy, and if it helps, remember the lies we tell our children while you’re awake in bed tonight watching the shadows on your wall; none of it is real anyway.