If I Were a Horror Movie Character…


Fun science fact of the day: The part of your brain that controls memory, decision making and affects the “flight or fight” response is called the amygdala. I mention this because in your typical Hollywood horror movie, all the characters, without exception, have impaired amygdales, which would explain much of their bizarre behavior. It seems like if there’s a choice between a decision that will preserve the character’s life and one that will endanger it, the horror movie character will, without exception, choose the latter.

There’s an Internet quiz titled, “If I Were an Evil Overlord,” and in that spirit, I humbly present, “If I Were a Horror Movie Character…”

If I were a horror movie character, I would avoid spending time with people who have any kind of Tragic Past. Individuals in particular I would avoid include college students who survived a car crash when they were in high school, arrogant people of all stripes because they are clearly over-compensating for being vile and are in need of comeuppance, and elderly recluses who’ve lost a family member or friend, or who have survived a gruesome accident and are disfigured in some way. Also, bypass anyone who has lost a beloved child in a horrible unexpected way because the odds that they have not come to terms with the event and moved on are high. All these people tend to be magnets for the supernatural rearing its eerie head and deciding to take revenge. You do not want to be dragged into anything like this.

Secondly, I were a character in a horror movie, I would avoid going anywhere alone, even if it is just to the bathroom in the middle of the night or during a party. If I hear or see something suspicious, I will remain firmly where I am and not advance cautiously saying things like, “Hello? Anyone there? Are you playing a trick on me? Well, you don’t scare me, you AHHHHHH!” Better yet, I will take off running in the opposite direction and not stop until I was safely surrounded by other people in bright light. If I hear a cat meowing but can’t actually see it, I will also escape as fast as possible because the odds are that there is a psycho killer nearby have just rocketed. I will also avoid inanimate objects, such as music boxes, that suddenly start moving by themselves for the same reason. Instead, I will use the wonderful modern invention that everyone possesses these days called a cell phone and either record the incident or preferably call the authorities.

A note about bathrooms: They are catnip for the supernatural. Find some other way to achieve cleanliness that does not involve sinks or bathtubs. A sponge bath may not be as refreshing, but it beats getting grabbed by a disembodied hand or stabbed when you step out of the shower.

Third, I would take all warnings that I should stop messing with whoever is orchestrating all the horror seriously. If I happen upon what appears to be a message in blood scrawled on a wall or mirror ordering me to “Stop” or “Danger!” I will calmly walk away in the other direction and not investigate further. I will avoid exploring places that are either extremely high or low, such as basements, tunnels, sewers, parking garages and clock towers because these places are magnets for psycho killers to hang out. I will not make the mistake of thinking that arming myself with a flashlight and crude weapon, such as a kitchen knife, is all I need to navigate such places with my limbs and psyche intact.

Fourth, I would make sure that I was a) fully up on all life-saving self-defense moves, and b) carry some kind of weapon on me at all times. I will not deceive myself that these tactics will save my life in themselves, but they may buy me time for additional help to arrive if I must fight for my life.

Fifth, if I do sense that I’ve become involved with a situation involving the supernatural, I will not make a beeline for whoever is closest and babble at them about how I am in Grave Danger because the odds that they won’t understand and think that I am unstable are sky high. Instead, if I do choose a confidant, I will present my case in a sober manner, using evidence I have accumulated to drive my point home. This might not work either, but it will probably be more effective than the first way.

Additionally, I would make sure that I was white because as Kumail Nanjiani points out in “The Big Sick,” if you’re a character of color in a horror movie, your arc consists of breaking into a deserted building after hours and hearing a cat. The odds of you making it to the credits are nil, unless you are the actual protagonist.

Last but not least, I would also make sure I was male because if you’re a woman in a horror movie, your odds of needing someone to swoop in and save you in the nick of time are quite high. Relying on other characters to save you is usually not a good idea because they are often equally dim. Also you have to spend a good chunk of the movie scantily clad, regardless of the weather or time of year, so the odds of your catching pneumonia by the end (if you aren’t killed first) are excellent, too.

Happy Halloween!


Movie Review: Suburbicon

According to the title card at the movie’s beginning, “Suburbicon” is based on a “remarkable true story.” Because Joel and Ethan Coen are heavily involved, however, in bringing this to the big screen, viewers will probably expect more of a dark commentary on human nature, as opposed to say, a more traditional plucky underdog who triumphs against all odds tale. Indeed “Sububicon” is the former, although I’m not sure how much is based on actual fact, and how much is fiction. Judging by what happens to the little boy (Noah Jupe), who plays the son of suburban dad (Matt Damon) with unsavory secrets, however, I’m going to pray the part involving his fate is pure invention.

Matt Damon played a white-collar, middle-management dweeb who was not all he appeared to be in the film “The Informant!” and here he repeats the role, with the exception that as it turns out he really (spoiler alert) does not care all that much for his wife (Julianne Moore) and child. Two main events shake up the placid titular neighborhood at the start of “Suburbicon”: One, the first African-American family moves into the neighborhood, and secondly, two men (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) break into Matt’s abode during the night, chloroform his family and horror of horrors, insist that Matt serve them drinks while they’re at it. Sadly, Julianne does not survive, but in a plot move that will no doubt provide much fodder for therapists should Noah seek one out later, her twin sister (also played by Julianne) promptly moves in, dyes her hair blonde and does something with Matt involving the creative use of a ping pong paddle. But there’s no return to anything resembling normalcy because the shady duo then show up at Matt’s office and proceed to rough him up. A sleazy guy (Oscar Isaac) claiming to be an insurance claims adjuster appears at Matt’s house during the day asking odd questions. As it turns out, Matt’s ultimate decision to play hardball with his harassers flies mostly under the radar because the community authorities are busy dealing with the lynch mob harassing the African-American couple (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrooke) and their young son. Apparently, Matt is one of the few adults who works a traditional nine-to-five job which requires (sort of) behaving like a grownup because we frequently see most of the other adults in the neighborhood hooting and hollering at the “outsiders” around the clock. Things come to a head one night involving multiple murders, fires, vandalism and general mayhem. Few of the main characters survive.

“Suburbicon” feels like what would happen if you stretched out a “Twilight Zone” episode to the length of a feature film and then threw in some twists from “Cold Case.” We hardly get to know Leith and Karimah, though they behave with impressive dignity and class in the scenes we do see them. Most of the screen time focuses on Matt and Julianne, who turn out to be in addition to poor caretakers, not too bright when it comes to committing a crime, making for a series of scenes that would be funnier if the other family were not in perpetual danger the whole time. For viewers who are still eager to see Matt in a film about the dangers of conformity, there is the upcoming “Downsizing,” in which he plays a guy who is literally shrunk and joins a community of similarly sized people. I hope he plays a better person in that one, surely, he’s used up his vileness quotient for this year here.

A Look Back: Carrie

Many movies, particularly those aimed at younger audiences, don’t take a sage to figure out the Main Message. A reliable one is Always Be Kind to Outcasts, presumably because one day they might be you. For example, in “Billy Madison,” Adam Sandler plays an overgrown man-child who’s forced by his father to re-experience grades K-12 and graduate so he can receive his inheritance, and after realizing – gasp – that he’s no longer considered “cool” among today’s teens phones a former nerd (Steve Buscemi) who he hassled years ago and apologizes. (This turns out later to be a literally life-saving decision.) Unfortunately, in “Carrie,” (both the original Stephen King horror film starring Sissy Spacek, and the remake with Chloe Grace-Moretz), being a bystander isn’t enough to save everyone who attends the fateful prom, nor do most people who should apologize for their sins. Do the former deserve it? Probably not, but that’s the way it goes. When Chloe gets angry, she has nothing on the Incredible Hulk.

In an interview for this year’s remake of “It,” Stephen King said that the inspiration for “Carrie” was based on two girls he knew as a teenager, one of whom had a giant crucifix hanging in her home. I wonder how she felt when she saw “Carrie,” on the big screen. Or her mom, provided that watching Hollywood films didn’t go against the tenets of their faith. Anyway, like Sissy in the seventies’ film, Chloe plays an outcast adolescent due to her religious upbringing by her single unhinged mother, Julianne Moore, which is so sheltered, she fails to recognize when she gets her first period. Because God has a horrible sense of humor in teen movies such as “Carrie”, this happens as she’s changing in the locker room for her next class (though it could have happened prior when the class is playing water volleyball). None of the girls, led by ringleader Portia Doubleday, are remotely sympathetic and taunt her until their teacher (Judy Greer) intervenes. However, this triggers two important events: one girl (Gabriella Wilde, yet another character played by someone with a real-life romance novel name) comes to feel remorse, and Chloe gets so enraged that her latent telekinesis powers burst into bloom along with her womanhood. While Chloe comes to realize that this means she’s no longer at the mercy of Julianne or her classmates, Gabriella concocts a plan to have her brooding, sensitive boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) take Chloe to the prom. Unfortunately, Portia is evil incarnate and comes up with a surefire way to ruin the occasion and (further) traumatize Chloe for life. However, Chloe – after being drenched in pigs’ blood after being crowned prom queen – gets revenge in the most deadly way possible.

The remake of “Carrrie” might make one naturally wonder if it’s possible in this day and age for a teenaged girl to remain ignorant of her body’s natural maturation signs, but that plot hole (less gaping in the Sissy Spacek original) can be brushed aside. Even years later, King’s depiction of adolescent cruelty is keen, even if at times taken a little over the top by the filmmakers. Usually the most dramatic thing that happens at a movie prom is a character making a Churchillian-eloquent speech on values, but in “Carrie” much worse is unleashed. Moral of the story: Next time someone in your gym class gets her period for the first time, offer her the necessary equipment and leave it at that. Or avoid proms altogether if you’re a sensitive, telekinetic teenage girl.




Movie Review: Happy Death Day

At the end of “Happy Death Day,” the main character (Jessica Rothe) admits to her quasi-boyfriend (Israel Broussard) that she hasn’t seen “Groundhog Day,” which suddenly puts a lot of her actions in a different perspective. It’s not a stretch to think that Jessica, playing a Queen Bee sorority sister, would rather drink Drano than watch something that geeky, but it is hard to believe she’s never read “Before I Fall,” or watched the movie (that came out earlier this year) based on it. In “Before I Fall,” a Queen Bee high schooler is forced to relive a Valentine’s Day-like scenario repeatedly until she figures out how to break the cycle. “Happy Death Day” occurs on Oct. 18 present day, the birthday of Jessica which is also (Spoiler alert) the date of her mother’s death. (Apparently, the lesson for scriptwriters here is to nab an early holiday to structure your movie plot around and release it then as well, lest you be accused of plagiarism.)

Like many horror movie protagonists, Jessica isn’t exactly a rocket scientist when it comes to her figuring out what is going on and why she keeps waking up in Israel’s dorm room again and again, to live yet another day before being murdered by a creepy guy wearing a baby-faced mask. If she was, she might have clued in sooner to the “Perhaps I should be a better person and face my fears honestly,” message, but she doesn’t – at least not for a startlingly long time. Instead, after a couple of replays, she confronts Israel, leaking eyeliner like a demented blonde raccoon, and dumps her problem into his lap. Being the typical nice guy that populates these kinds of movies, Israel cooperates, suggesting Jessica make a list of all potential “suspects,” which include sorority sisters that she’s stolen boyfriends from, the doctor at a local hospital with whom she’s been having an affair, the roommate (Ruby Modine) who only wants to be her best bud, etc. However, this fails, although it does make for a montage where Jessica strolls around campus naked (nothing is shown). So she’s forced to do some more digging into the odd scenarios. Who is that creepy rent-a-cop at the hospital anyway? What does the escaped murderer shown on the news have to do with her killer anyway? And when Jessica finally attempts to play nice, how come that doesn’t work out exactly as hoped?

Jessica starts the movie with plenty of guts, it’s a heart she has to discover within her. This can only be achieved by lots of tries, but unfortunately, Jessica figures out that she only has a certain number before her time is up. So the clock ticks away, while various characters are stabbed, shot at, hung, poisoned, etc., but there’s finally success. “Happy Death Day” is a pretty typical horror movie, though there is humor to be found in spots. At one point, she blurts, “I know I’ve been a bad roommate but…” which prompted several viewers in my theater to burst out laughing. And yes, Ruby is Matthew’s daughter. In his younger days, Matthew was once in a film called “Gross Anatomy” in which he played a cocky doc who needed to learn to be a better person. How time flies.

A Look Back: Wayne’s World

Among the rock groups that brought large helpings of treacle to the US music charts in the eighties was the unforgettable Air Supply who, among other songs, had one with the plaintive refrain: “I don’t know how you do it/Making love out of nothing at all.” It is rather difficult to make something out of nothing much, and I expect that’s also true of some “Saturday Night Live” sketches which work well in five minutes plus segments on late night TV, but don’t quite make a successful transition to the big screen in which they must be stretched out at least an hour or so. After some unscientific analysis, I’ve figured out that it really helps if the sketch features not just likeable characters, but also a bunch of catchphrases that the audience can gleefully chant along. By that standard, “Wayne’s World,” based on a recurring sketch by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, is a bubbling spring of once-popular catchphrases from “Party on!” to “Schwing!” the last of which refers to “babelicious babes” like model Claudia Schiffer (invented in the pre-PC era). It was set to become a success when it hit theaters, and it was – with even a sequel to follow.

“Wayne’s World,” ran on SNL in the late eighties to the early nineties, and starred Mike and Dana, who play heavy mental enthusiasts who still live with their parents but whose coolness quotient is boosted by the fact that they have their own public access cable show which takes place in Mike’s parents’ basement. Their show is a mishmash of dream sequences, wacky high jinks, and the aforementioned catchphrases as the pair discuss the aforementioned babes. Obviously, the challenge for director Penelope Spheeris was to find a way to move most of the action out of the basement setting without sacrificing any of the appealing weirdness of the duo. This she managed to do, using the breaking the fourth wall technique that worked so well in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Characters regularly comment on what is happening in the movie, letting the audience in on the fun. They also mock such tropes that were popular in say, Afterschool Specials as when Mike completes a monologue by confessing that he can’t read. “Is that true?” he’s asked. Except for the reading part is the reply.

The actual movie plot revolves around the two getting a break from their humdrum Aurora existence when Rob Lowe, a sleazy producer, offers to buy their show, and they accept. However, Rob turns out to be the villain of the piece, and the tension revolves around the duo coming to the realization that they’re being exploited (although that’s also done in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way) and how they get even. There are also love interests for the two, including Tia Carrere for Mike, and a trip to a guitar store where Mike is crushed to see the sign on the wall reading, “No ‘Stairway to Heaven’.” The sequel is, in sequel fashion, not quite as hilarious but still funny. And if it seems bizarre that “Schwing!” once made it into the popular lexicon as something people actually said, keep in mind that this was also in the era of “Where’s the beef?” and “Grody to the max!” Party on indeed.



Movie Review: Marshall

In honor of the date, I thought about reviewing “Friday the Thirteenth” today, but just the sliver I saw as a kid scared me senseless, so I decided to go with early Oscar-nomination bait, “Marshall,” which (unfortunately) is about a timely topic in the news: accusations of sexual assault.

“Marshall,” stars Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous Thurgood Marshall, here introduced in the forties (note those segregated drinking fountains), as an up-and-coming lawyer for the NAACP. Committed to defending minorities who are unfairly slandered, Chadwick is assigned a case involving a white woman (Kate Hudson) from Greenwich, Conn. who was brutally assaulted then left for dead under a bridge, but later managed to escape and inform the police that she was attacked by her black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) who insists that he’s innocent. However, when the presiding judge (James Cromwell) turns out to be the bigot-from-hell and insists that Chadwick’s recently met partner, Josh Gad, do the heavy lifting inside the courtroom, although he’s only done insurance cases, things take a twist. Although Josh is less-than-thrilled (to put it mildly) and worries about the effect taking the case will have on his family and his standing in the community, he agrees. Thus the two men begin to forge a real partnership, both believing that Sterling has been unfairly accused.

On the way to justice, the pair will be hampered in their quest to free Sterling from blame by many things including said judge, the opposing attorney (Dan Stevens, who gets to make a Grand Speech toward the end, just like the more sympathetic characters), witnesses who Blatantly Lie Under Oath, and of course, the accused not being quite honest about key details from the start (which always comes out anyway and blows up in their face toward the trial’s end). Their enemies will even get physical – in one scene that will be more dramatic for those who haven’t already seen the trailer. Is Kate lying and if so, why? As one female character puts it, why would a woman lie about being raped? The verdict – and the truth when it comes out – answers these questions satisfactorily, although if you have seen a courtroom drama before, you may already have guessed.

I saw a review stating that Chadwick is not actually the protagonist despite being the only one featured on the movie poster, but I would disagree. True the script puts him in a tricky position since he’s forbidden to speak during the trial itself; you may wonder why a different case in Marshall’s career (such as Brown vs. the Board of Education) wasn’t chosen to center the movie around instead. But I suppose the argument might run that in order to accurately depict how minorities, including lawyers, were discriminated against, you have to include proof. “Marshall” really is a courtroom drama/buddy movie, as Josh has equal screen-time and character development. The question of who is the main character is simple: both. Kate also does a terrific job as a wealthy woman who’s hiding secrets but not the ones they appear to be at the start. Expect at least a few Oscar nominations when the time rolls around.


A Look Back: The Emperor’s Club

In the movies, if you wish to charm your balky charges into accepting you, a number of options are available. You can simply wait them out, or if you prefer to take a more proactive role, you can follow the lead of Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” and let your wards hang out with you during a thunderstorm, then follow that up by making them hideous play clothes from drapery. If you’re a coach with a plucky but ragtag team, playing hardball at first but then gradually coming to see your players as individuals should do the trick. If you’re a teacher, it’s always a bonus if you can take Shakespeare and turn his work into a rap song. Letting your students play soccer while shouting inspirational quotes worked well for Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” and later on for Kevin Kline in a similar film, “The Emperor’s Club,” getting his students to dress in togas did much to ignite their latent passion for Latin history. Let me explain further.

“The Emperor’s Club,” based on a short story by Ethan Canin, relates things from the teacher’s viewpoint both during his tenure at a prep school and then years later when he reunites with his class as adults. Kevin plays the lead, and except for a chaste flirtation with the school’s sole woman teacher (Embeth Davidtz) has settled into a decades-old bachelor lifestyle. His main relationship is with his Latin history class, particularly his three top students played as teens by Rishi Mehta (The Earnest Minority), Jesse Eisenberg (A Second Earnest Student), and Paul Dano (Yet a Third Earnest Student), all of whom are eager to compete in the end-of-term “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest – a history trivia competition. However, a wrench is thrown in their plans by the arrival of new student (Emile Hirsch) who has been living like a renegade. Though Kevin immediately assumes responsibility and even visits Emile’s father (Harris Yulin), he’s rebuffed, as Harris wishes Kevin to teach only history, not values. This cannot stand, though, and eventually Kevin stumbles onto the key to unlock Emile’s inner Good Kid (hint: it’s an impromptu game of baseball).

After Emile begins, however haltingly, to apply himself, Kevin feels obligated to, shall we say, nudge him into the prestigious contest (bumping out Jesse), but then (spoiler alert) Emile goes and cheats – leaving Kevin with a dilemma. Eventually, (more spoilers) Kevin massages things so another student wins – but since Emile knows Kevin knows and did nothing, his respect for the teacher is shot. Fast forward to when Emile and co. are adults, and Emile decides to host a reunion at his lavish home, complete with a re-match of the Julius Caesar contest. And dang, if history doesn’t repeat itself – but the movie adds a twist the story lacks by having Emile’s young son overhear their confrontation. According to Kevin’s character, this is “a story without surprises,” but to movie viewers used to teachers who do the right thing against all odds, “The Emperor’s Club” may come as an intriguing change.