Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

jaws-chrissie-smaller

Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

kitner

My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

brody reacts

Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

boat scare

Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  Comment below!

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 2 of 2)

It’s easy to forget how good some horror films are given the junk that populates the genre.  I would count most of these titles among my all-time favorite films, but especially the top 5.  (And “Jaws,” of course.  A reminder that the film is exempt.)  If you haven’t seen the first installment of the list, click here.  Now, let’s get on with it.

The peculiar fella at the old gas station warns you against going any further if you’re frightened by spoilers.

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

RosemarysBaby-smaller

It’s probably clear by now that I’m a bigger fan of psychological horror than that of the splatter variety.  I just see gore as an easy means to get a rise out of an audience.  Few films manage psychological terror as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Roman Polanski’s film is about a young woman (Mia Farrow) and her husband, who’ve just moved into a new apartment with plans to have a baby.  Her next door neighbors may…or may not…be interested in using her unborn child in a satanic ritual.  The film is a masterclass in compositions.  When we meet the husband next door, he’s staged on the left side of the frame in a wide shot.  The right side is empty.  Why the unbalance?  Why are we being kept at a distance from him?  Also check out a scene where Ruth Gordon’s Minnie, the next door wife, calls a doctor for Rosemary.  As Minnie makes the call, the camera is positioned outside the room such that her face is cut off by the door frame.  What are Minnie’s intentions?  What’s being said on the other end of the phone?  What does all this mean for Rosemary?  Polanski’s choices make you nervous, ratcheting up the paranoia.

4.) “The Shining”

shining_smaller

While its characterizations might be a little thin, “The Shining” works remarkably well on an atmospheric level.  From the opening credits, director Stanley Kubrick has me on edge.  A helicopter shot follows Jack Torrance’s car as it drives through a mountain range, just a speck in this rugged landscape.  The droning score and use of a wide-angle lens to ever-so-slightly distort the image never fails to put a knot in my stomach.  This adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, about a family overseeing a vacant hotel, is pretty unconventional for a horror film.  Yes, we’re stuck with characters in a confined (and haunted) space, but consider how the film is shot and lit.  Kubrick doesn’t use the darkness as a crutch.  Even night scenes — I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson chasing poor Danny Lloyd through a snowy hedge maze — are made clear with diffused lighting.  So many of the hotel’s interiors are brightly lit and fully in focus.  We watch young Danny play in the hallways, as series of doors stretch in either direction.  Danger could come from any one of them.

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

the-silence-of-the-lambs-smaller

In its two hour running time, “The Silence of the Lambs” accomplishes so much.  It’s a procedural, as the FBI hunts a serial killer named Buffalo Bill.  It’s a human drama, as trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) attempts to silence her demons by finding Bill’s kidnap victim before it’s too late.  It’s a feminist film, as Clarice navigates the politics of male-dominated law enforcement.  And yes, it’s a horror film, as evidenced not just by Buffalo Bill but Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).  The first 10 minutes build anticipation and then undercut expectation.  We learn about Hannibal from Clarice’s superior and from his doctor at the asylum.  “Don’t let him inside your head,” “He’s a monster,” etc.  The doctor shows Clarice a picture of a nurse disfigured by Hannibal.  In a great bit of restraint, director Jonathan Demme refrains from showing us the photo.  Instead, we get the doctor’s description and Foster’s great reaction.  “His pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”  As Clarice approaches Hannibal’s cell, we’re waiting for a gibbering madman.  What we get is the cool and calm cordiality of Anthony Hopkins.  This is a killer you might invite into your home.  The scene still gives me shivers.

2.) “Alien”

alien-smaller

I could watch “Alien” any time.  There’s a great economy of storytelling, with the screenwriters offering brief character sketches.  He’s the laid back Captain, he’s the alpha-male, she’s high strung.  There’s enough personality for us to care about these people.  Miners in space, they wake up from hyper sleep to a distress signal from a nearby planet.  Or maybe that signal is a warning?  I love the slow burn of the film, nothing horrific happens for about 40 minutes.  The strategy pays off thanks to director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger.  Star Sigourney Weaver has said that she initially assumed she’d signed on to a B-movie, but Scott and Giger bring A-level craft.  The sets are all practical, the gloomy hallways of the mining vessel and the gooey corridors of the alien craft have often been imitated.  And then there’s the creature itself — brilliant in concept and execution.  It “impregnates” an individual and a critter comes bursting from the host’s chest.  The adult form is menacing as hell (and slightly phallic).  Contrary to many horror films, our characters make smart decisions to try to best this baddie, but they’re just inherently ill equipped to deal with the problem.

1.) “Psycho”

psycho_smaller

I excluded “Jaws” to resist the obvious, and then #1 comes along and I make the next most predictable choice.  But what are ya gonna do?  Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was a watershed moment in movies.  So much has been written about the film that I’m at a bit of a loss…so I’ll focus on two elements.  First, Bernard Hermann’s iconic score.  It’s excellent.  And I’m not just talking about the shower scene.  Consider how long it takes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to meet the business end of a knife.  We spend 50-ish minutes with her — she steals money from her bank, hightails it out of town, and meets a nice hotel clerk named Norman (Anthony Perkins).  This doesn’t look like the movie we signed up for, but it sure as hell sounds like it!  From the opening credits, Herrmann’s driving score leaves little doubt about the type of film we’re watching.  And then there’s that final twist, the one that reveals the nice hotel clerk occasionally masquerades in his mother’s clothes and knifes young women.  It’s tricky to follow one massive twist – Marion’s murder — with another.  Your audience is primed, looking in every nook and cranny (literally and narratively) for something to jump out.  But Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us twice.  We watch as Norman dutifully cleans up his…uh…mother’s mess, placing Marion’s corpse in her own car and wiping down the bathroom.  It’s a great, dialog-less sequence that puts us in his corner.  Reportedly, audiences in 1960 gasped when it looked as though Marion’s car wouldn’t sink in the swamp.  “We’ve just seen this terrible murder.  Surely, this guy’s safe.  Right?  Right!?”  Admittedly, I suspect “Psycho” was instrumental in making audiences suspicious of their narratives.  Everything since has had to contend with that.

Thanks for reading! Here’s my complete “Jaws” Memorial List:

1.) “Psycho”

2.) “Alien”

3.) “The Silence of the Lambs”

4.) “The Shining”

5.) “Rosemary’s Baby”

6.) “The Thing”

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

8.) “The Exorcist”

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

10.) “The Orphanage”

Honorable mentions include: “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” “The Innocents,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (the version from 1956 and ’78).

Do you have a favorite horror film? Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Horror Movies (Part 1 of 2)

With Halloween around the corner, I thought I would count down my top 10 favorite horror movies.  I’ve chosen to exclude “Jaws”, since it would just be too obvious a choice.  Truth be told, you’re gonna see a lot of horror’s usual suspects here, but hopefully there’ll be some surprises as well.  I should stress that these aren’t necessarily the scariest movies I’ve seen, just my favorites from the genre.

Fair warning: spoilers are known to haunt this post.

10.) “The Orphanage”

the-orphanage

“The Orphanage” doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel.  It’s about a mother who returns to the facility that cared for her in her youth.  She and her husband plan to reopen it to help disabled children.  A ghostly wrench is thrown in their plans when their ill son goes missing.  There are a lot of familiar elements: a large and gloomy estate, imaginary friends that are so much more, and creepy, unsettling kids.  It functions just fine as a family drama — Belen Rueda is really strong as the mother who will stop at nothing — but it makes this list because it’s frankly one of the most frightening films I’ve seen.  Director J.A. Bayona constructs sequences that are all-timers.  It has two of the best jump scares: one involving a woman crossing the street and another the immediate aftermath.  Later, a medium wanders the orphanage at night, her committed performance is bolstered by glowing green eyes (thanks to infrared cameras) and eerie sound design.  Finally, a game of one-two-three-knock-on-the-wall is distressingly suspenseful as the camera leisurely shows us what we want (or don’t want) to see.

9.) “The Sixth Sense”

Sixth sense

With movies like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” it’s easy to forget how strong a filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan once was.  I like “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” but it’s hardly controversial to say “The Sixth Sense” remains his masterpiece.  Everyone remembers the ending — and it’s wonderfully constructed — but this is so much more than a twist film.  We’ve got two compelling central characters: a young boy who sees ghosts and a child psychologist looking to make good after a traumatic event.  Shyamalan finds ways to visually tell the story, such as a series of P.O.V. shots as the boy moves to and from his psychologist during a game.  Then there’s that ending — turns out Bruce Willis’s traumatic event was fatal. The twist works on a number of levels.  First and foremost, it holds together.  The ending adheres to the rules that the movie laid out (convenient though they may be).  As opposed to other films with similarly slippery endings (“I’ve been dead the whole time,” “I made all these people up,” “It was all a dream”), our protagonist’s actions have real-world consequences.  Finally, it concludes his arc.  Having helped a child in need, he can peacefully depart.

8.) “The Exorcist”

exorcist

Everyone knows the story of “The Exorcist” — a young girl is possessed by the devil.  But actually I don’t find William Friedkin’s film to be that scary.  Sure, there are some chilling moments.  A priest’s vision of his deceased mother on the girl’s bed still gives me goosebumps, but the film succeeds as a character-based drama.  We learn early on that Father Karras, the priest charged with performing the exorcism, is suffering a crisis of faith.  And when he’s confronted with the devil…well, that’s the stuff of drama.  Actor Jason Miller is the heart of the movie, wearing Karras’s anger, sadness, and confusion in the lines on his face.  It’s a testament to the film that its third act is so compelling.  At face value, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about it:  one set, three actors, lots of yelling.  But thanks to the great character work, we’re completely invested.

7.) “Shaun of the Dead”

shaun_of_the_dead

The first feature-length collaboration between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost is still the best.  Though I enjoy the hell out of “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End,” neither of those films manage as stunning a blend of comedy, drama and genre.  In “Shaun of the Dead,” the titular character is a young man stuck between adolescence and adulthood — the former embodied by his endearing yet childish roommate, Ed.  Amidst turmoil with his girlfriend, who would like Shaun to do something with his life, a zombie outbreak erupts.  The film is stunning in the way it has you laughing one minute and on the edge of your seat the next.  Check out a scene where Shaun’s stepfather turns into a zombie.  Shaun tells his mother, voice brimming with emotion, “There’s nothing left of the man you loved!”  His stepfather then promptly mutes a loud car stereo.  While the writing is tight and the performances are excellent, Wright has carefully crafted his story for the silver screen.  There’s an amusing cut of sorts where a drunk Shaun scribbles on his refrigerator then falls asleep in the kitchen.  The camera remains stationary, but through a quick lighting change — Boom! — it’s the next morning and Shaun hasn’t moved.

6.) “The Thing”

the-thing3

John Carpenter’s masterpiece — sorry “Halloween” fans — was not viewed particularly favorably upon its release.  Audiences in 1982 were looking for a close encounter of a warmer and fuzzier kind.  Paging “E.T.”  “The Thing” tells the story of a group of researchers in the Antarctic who stumble upon a shape-shifting alien with a penchant for assimilation.  There’s plenty of splatter here, thanks to Rob Bottin’s still stunning practical effects, but the real draw is the dread and paranoia that ensues from the creature’s arrival.  One great bit of tension comes from our protagonist, played by Kurt Russell, implementing a blood test to identify the creature.  Appropriately, the novella the film is based on is called “Who Goes There?”  So many of the film’s thrills come from our characters not knowing who to trust, and this may never be more potent than the film’s haunting final moments.

Stay tuned this Friday, Halloween, for my top 5 horror movies.  Comment below with some of your favorites!