A Barker Carnivale

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Can we talk for a moment about how modern horror movies mostly suck?

“We’re all ears. Please, go on.”

Yes, yes, there are exceptions, and hopefully there always will be.

But by and large, horror movies have been getting worse. Most of them are not even remotely scary, and they’re not as provocative as they think they are. 

You can chalk it up to CGI effects looking flimsy no matter how much money goes into them, and on the foregoing of mood and atmosphere for some cheap jump scares. Those are definitely ubiquitous problems.

But I think the worst quality in new horror is a sense of self-awareness.

Wes Craven pulled it off back in 1996 with his first Scream movie, but that was fresh territory at the time.

Now it’s everywhere. We’re all too clever by half these days, and yet there’s nothing duller than a horror film that wants to prove how sharp its writers are.

Real horror shouldn’t be a lecture, or a game of spot-the-reference. It should be a therapy session, disguised as entertainment. 

As such, the writers and directors should do more showing than telling, gently guiding viewers down a path toward our darkest thoughts and fears. The best horror stories come from the unknown, the irrational. They make a sort of intuitive sense to us, as they invoke the cracked logic of our dreams.

Take for instance, Clive Barker’s 1986 short story The Forbidden, and its 1992 film adaptation Candyman.

In The Forbidden, graduate student Helen Lyle explores the slums of Liverpool in search of content-rich graffiti to study for her thesis on “the semiotics of urban despair.”

In an old, decrepit building Helen finds a striking mural of an imposing figure with one hand replaced by a hook, and a phrase taken from Hamlet: “Sweets to the sweet.”

Wanting to know more about this ominous figure, she begins to ask the neighborhood residents about it, and she begins to hear various stories about grisly murders, all involving a hook.

Ostensibly by a figure known as “The Candyman.”

Fascination with the accounts of the locals turns into genuine interest in their veracity, but interest soon fades into doubt, dismissal, and then outright disgust. How could these people find such pleasure in spinning such gruesome tales, such fantastical distortions of real crimes? And it is here, with her academic skepticism and moral high horse, her reduction of the strikingly macabre legend to mere fiction, that Helen treads into dangerous territory.

At its heart, The Forbidden is a story about the power of stories. And so the sweet-smelling hooked killer that Helen dismisses as fiction comes to confront the pampered Doubting Thomas to put right the assault upon his reputation.

As grotesque as the real Candyman surely is to Helen, she is nevertheless struck by his grandeur. He is monstrous, and yet he is seductive. He whispers an invitation to “Be my victim,” and promises Helen’s own power as part of the local legend. By the story’s end, she hopes to have such power over her smug partner and colleague Trevor, as it was he who had repeatedly dismissed and diminished her. And so, brought low by the culture she looked down upon, Helen finds her own power as “the semiotics of urban despair,” and presumably finds new life as part of the story.

The Forbidden was adapted for the screen in 1992 by Bernard Rose, and was named “Candyman” after Clive Barker’s gruesome figure of legend.

The adaptation preserves the basic plot and all of the main characters, but fleshes out the Candyman himself, and also doubles down on the socio-political dimensions that permeated the original story.

The film changes the setting from Liverpool, England to Chicago, Illinois in the US, specifically within the Cabrini-Green project homes in the north of the city. This is a historically black neighborhood that has since become a symbol of urban blight and crime. 

Thus, the class resentment at the heart of Barker’s short story has been given a racial dimension to make it even more potent. Helen is still an academic interloper treating the decayed neighborhood and its residents as mere fodder for analysis, but now she’s a well-do-do white woman intruding upon the homes of poor black residents for the sake of her school thesis, and as a result these character interactions come off as even more fraught. And as we shall see, the added racial dimension makes the film’s horror elements cut all the deeper.

As for his origin story, the titular Candyman was the son of an emancipated slave, educated in the arts thanks to his father’s fortunes as an entrepreneur. He became a gifted painter, and was commissioned to paint a portrait of a lovely young white woman. The two fell in love, and the woman became pregnant with his child. For this interracial affair, the man was brutally lynched. His right hand was sawed off with a rusty blade. His body was smeared with stolen honey to attract the hive’s angry bees to him, and he was stung to death. His body was burned in a pyre, and his ashes were scattered across Cabrini-Green.

Thus the film’s Candyman is as much a vengeful spirit in his own right as a manifestation of the community’s dreams gone rancid. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula, this is a villain with whom we can sympathize. He has been rendered evil, spoiled from the injustices put upon him. And yet, he is nevertheless a malevolent figure who murders people without a second thought, including the residents of Cabrini-Green. As such, he represents a particularly toxic manifestation of dreams deferred; he has gained power as a story, but it’s a self-cannibalizing kind of power: through which pride and reputation come at the expense of everything else. (And duh: It also helps to make him scary!)

Also in line with Coppola’s Dracula film, Helen finds herself playing the part of the monster’s long-lost love.

What makes Candyman so unique, though, is that the story is not so much one long seduction of the victim into the partner, but one long spiritual debasement of the virtuous maiden, until she is fully brought low. 

This smart, beautiful, well meaning white woman is suddenly implicated in murders around the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. The film never once says the word “gentrification,” but the coercive subtext of that social phenomenon has never been rendered on the screen so forcefully, or so viscerally. Cruel as Candyman’s actions may seem, there is a sense of reasoning to the revenge. After being debased and murdered for the crime of assuming equality in love, he eventually found a twisted sort of power as a living horror, and then sought to bring the object of his affection to his level.

By the end of the story, Helen acts heroically and dies burning in a pyre in order to save a baby. Yet she becomes the villain of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood tales, blamed for trying to kill the baby. And so the crazy white woman is born again as a vengeful spirit. And her first target? The rich white know-it-all man who always took her for granted, yet never respected her. In the film, we actually see Helen’s revenge as a spirit: she is just as deformed and debased as Candyman himself, and yet her thirst for agency has granted her great power, and some measure of twisted dignity, as a story.

Then, in 2021, a new film named Candyman was released. This was directed by Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the story with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. While the film is technically a sequel to the 1992 film, it is also seen as a fresh take on the story, a radical reworking to speak to a modern audience.

The prospect of a Candyman film that was actually developed by black writers had so much promise, as those social dimensions could potentially be tackled with even more depth. 

Alas, the 2021 film did not fulfill that promise. Despite having some good ideas, it’s just not good storytelling. And it’s piss-poor horror storytelling.

Whereas the original film used subtext and visual suggestion to explore its socio-political theme of gentrification, here the writers use dialogue in the very first scene to make it clear that “This Film Is About Gentrification!” Through this exposition and others to follow, DaCosta’s film treats the audience like we’re all idiots. As I said earlier, the masters of horror know to guide us through the story rather than tell us the themes and character motivations upfront.

The movie does have an interesting starting premise: a black artist living in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood near Cabrini-Green becomes obsessed with the local Candyman legend as a possible conduit for his political art against racial violence.

Through his efforts, he somehow becomes implicated in the Candyman spirit’s violent actions, and his own fantasies start getting fulfilled in bloody fashion. 

Despite the solid setup, there’s no discernible point of tension or conflict in this character’s arc, and thus serves no purpose in the narrative beyond political commentary. His girlfriend has some conflict, discovering with horror how her partner is slowly changing into something monstrous, and there is some drama to be found in that conflict. But the resolution of her arc at the story’s end feels more like a twist that comments on real life circumstances and online discourse than anything that came organically from within the story itself. More telling rather than really showing.

The writers of this new Candyman are so concerned with meta-textual relevance that they left the story’s text by the wayside. And completely forgot about the notion of subtext.

But a coherent text is not everything. As I said, horror speaks in the language of dreams. If the film had showcased sights, sounds, and scenes that were as arresting as those in the first film, then the intuitive power of the story would still win out over everything else. And yet, DaCosta’s film fails in this respect as well.

It has to be repeated: bad CGI is bad.

Cheap jump scares are cheap. Some of the effects that are used look neat, but none of it is scary. The glowering Candyman mural in the original film burned itself into our psyche, yet there is nothing in the remake that holds such power. What should be provocative and visceral instead feels manufactured and clinical. 

Yes, in today’s world, even the critical darlings of horror tend to be lackluster disappointments.

The filmmakers are clever for their own good, and not willing to follow their intuitions to deeper, darker, more potent, narrative territory.

tnocs.com contributing author phylum of Alexandria

Ironically, Candyman’s reputation has been marred by this overly academic exercise. He may well seek out his revenge. But hopefully he’ll at least get a more deserving crack at a new life as an unsettling and powerful story. What better way to “hook” younger audiences into contemplating the dark recesses of their souls?

But should that opportunity ever come again, I hope that its creators will first take some time to stop reading online think pieces, stop reading follower comments on their Twitter account, turn off their damn smart phones, turn out the lights, and close their eyes.

And from that darkness, to carefully study the things that go bump in the night.


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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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cstolliver
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May 1, 2023 4:54 am

Good, probing piece, although maybe I shouldn’t be reading it at 5 in the morning… 🙂

mt58
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May 1, 2023 4:59 am

Terrific stuff. I’m not that much of a horror film aficionado, but this analysis makes me want to revisit my position.
Well done!

cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 6:42 pm

Candyland, the original, just blew my mind. I saw it for the first time after watching the remake. You’re absolutely right about the final scene. Looks like studio interference to me.

That scene at the graveyard looks like a tip of the cap to To Kill a Mockingbird. I think I understand what Jordan Peele was thinking.

I like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, “a lot.” But the criticism about films with narratives about black history is that African-Americans aren’t proactive. Another example, Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom. Steven Biko is not the main character; it’s the journalist played by Kevin Kline. A Dry White Season is another excellent film, on par with Mississippi Burning, but the story of apartheid is told through an Afrikaan’s eyes.

It doesn’t bother me. I understand that this was the only way to get these films financed, especially in the 20th century.

Helen Lyle was a then-modern day Atticus Finch. Virginia Madsen’s character is a good person. Since the remake vilifies Helen, Candyman counterbalances Helen’s rewrite by making Billy, the Cabrini-Green witness to the murder who grew up to be a laundromat owner and invaluable resource of history to Anthony, the bad guy, the guy who solves problems with violence instead of diplomacy. That scene with Anthony as a neo-Candyman is straight out of blaxploitation films. In Marvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, the black man wins, which at time, was something an African-American audience never saw.

Peele wanted a black person to solve a black community’s problem. My gripe with the remake is that you shouldn’t solve violence with more violence.

But, Candyman, is not perfect. It’s the weakest film with Peele’s participation.
Get Out and Us freaked me out.

cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 6:43 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Candyland?

cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 9:41 pm

Sure. The film is a hit and miss. It overreaches. Anthony is an assimilationist. His girlfriend’s pals call them out for being hypocrites, being beneficiaries of gentrification just like their counterparts. He and his girlfriend are pretty bourgeois. Anthony’s motivation to transfer into a radical doesn’t seem to come from an organic place. Anthony’s almost spontaneous transformation into a bee occurs in a vacuum. I think Jordan Peele just wants the whole world to know that he saw David Cronenberg’s The Fly. But Anthony does have similarities with the Kasi Lemmons character in the original. In 1992, maybe it was just a matter of Helen being the focal point of the film, so she interacts with the mother and baby, while her black friend just stands around. Maybe Peele picked up on this. From the vantage point of today, it looks as if she never stepped into a black neighborhood, just like Anthony when he goes into Cabrini Green for the first time. He’s researching his own people.

Music by Philip Glass? That’s quite the departure. He must’ve been friends with the filmmaker. Or broke?

cappiethedog
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May 2, 2023 3:08 am

In my original avatar, which I changed, when I got cropped out of the picture during the website overhaul, I’m wearing a New Order cap I bought at the concert site when they played here in 2018. It was the cover art for Movement. I forgot to put it back on my head after watching Rocket Man. I loved that cap. I mourn its loss, still.

So, of course, a song called “New Order T-Shirt” got me smiling. And then there is this unexpected couplet:

When you rescued me from the custom cops in Hawaii/When I shut down the place with my Japanese novelty bomb,

which got me laughing uncontrollably.

The National played here in 2014. I think this actually happened.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 1, 2023 10:35 am

Last week I went to the movies for the first time in at least four years, and I treated myself to Evil Dead Rise. It was indeed a treat for a horror movie aficionado like me!

While I agree with Phylum that the current state of horror is too clever by at least half and overly reliant on CGI, Lee Cronin’s interpolation of Sam Raimi’s classic is not guilty of those sins. It’s genuinely, gut-wrenchingly terrifying, exploding with perfectly-executed practical gore, and full of such dread and hopelessness. I squirmed nonstop while watching the movie. It RIPPED MY SOUL OUT and tossed it in the garbage. It had enough subtle callbacks to the original movies for a fan like me to spot them, but it wasn’t reliant on them. It doesn’t quite have the madcap energy of Evil Dead 2, which is one of the best movies ever made, full stop. But it is truly dark, scary, gory and well-written/acted/produced.

I highly recommend it if you’re a gorehound or horror fan. It’s probably a little much for the casual movie goer. 9.5/10

Pauly Steyreen
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May 1, 2023 2:18 pm

Train to Busan was fun!

Evil Dead Rise doesn’t really do the humorous thing like Evil Dead 2 did… it’s more like a bottomless pit of evil and dread. But it’s got more spirit than the torture porn horror movies of recent vintage (e.g. Saw franchise).

cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 9:44 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Drag Me to Hell was fun.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 1, 2023 10:29 pm
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Hella fun!!! Sam Raimi can’t make a movie that doesn’t have a nice vein of fun and humor lurking somewhere in the murky shadows.

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 1, 2023 11:35 am

I haven’t seen the new Candyman and haven’t seen the original since it’s release. I appear to have gotten confused in the intervening years as I thought you summoned him by saying his name 3 times rather than 5. Guess Beetlejuice had a bigger impact on me.

As a teenager I was big into horror films, on any occasion that our parents went out and left me and my sister to our own devices we would go to the tiny VHS rental store in the village and select a couple of horrors. Over here the rating system goes from U to PG to 12 to 15 to 18. Didn’t matter if we weren’t actually old enough to rent the video, the owner didn’t worry about that and our parents weren’t bothered either. We’d watch anything regardless of quality.

These days my wife isn’t keen on horror so I don’t see too many but I have enjoyed the three films Jordan Peele has directed so disappointing to see his name attached to this as writer and not hitting the mark. I can now file this under Phylum watched it so I don’t have to.

It’s not horror but the most disturbing film I’ve watched recently was Fall. It was all to do with the circumstances, we spent much our flight to Florida last month in turbulence with the seat belt signs on. Its a ridiculous premise but turned out that bouncing round at 35,000 feet accompanied by the stomach churning suspense and sense of dread of the film wasn’t the ideal match for a relaxing flight.

Last edited 1 year ago by JJ Live At Leeds
cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 9:46 pm

Hanauma Bay?

cappiethedog
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May 2, 2023 1:18 am

A lot of us here have a saying: “Stop robbing the tourists.”

thegue
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May 1, 2023 12:48 pm

I’m not big into horror films, and I certainly haven’t watched any recently, but as JJ Leeds pointed out, Jordan Peele’s 3 films (Get Out, Nope, Us) were great.

It Follows was great. I thought Cloverfield was everything The Blair Witch Project wanted to be (but wasn’t), but to your point CGI ruined it. SPOILER AHEAD: We did NOT need to actually see the monster, I thought it ruined the film.

But when the taped over portion of the home video showed our couple in Coney Island, and something falls into the water behind them?

CHILLS.

P.S. Scariest film I’ve ever seen is The Shining.

mt58
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May 1, 2023 1:05 pm
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+1 for the spoiler alert. Atta ‘Gue.

lovethisconcept
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May 2, 2023 1:59 pm

I skipped both of them because of the shaky camera technique. Just the recipe for a raging migraine.

cappiethedog
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May 1, 2023 6:46 pm
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The anticipation of seeing The Blair Witch Project was more fun than the actual film.

cappiethedog
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May 2, 2023 3:30 am
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thegue, was it you who brought up Jacob’s Ladder on the mothership?

Underrated.

thegue
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May 2, 2023 9:52 am
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I don’t remember, but I absolutely would’ve mentioned Jacob’s Ladder.

I didn’t remember the song (I think the ONLY 80s #1 I didn’t know), but man that movie!!!

If The Shining isn’t my #1 horror film, Jacob’s Ladder might be it. I do know I still get chills from its opening five minutes in the subway.

Edith G
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May 1, 2023 9:24 pm

Great analysis Phylum, sometimes filmmakers forget that less is better in horror movies, and tend to rely on jump scares. I watched again “Candyman” awhile ago and I still thought it was a good movie, I never saw the remake and I have no interest in this.

I like the genre, probably since my mom allowed me to watch horror films since I was a child (I was 6 YO when I watched “Friday 13th Part III”), in her defense, she said that everything that I was seeing in those movies weren’t for real. I usually can’t take any kind of gore scenes, except the eye scene from “Hostel”, which I didn’t dare to watch.

I haven’t seen horror movies since “Get Out”, I hope to see one anytime soon.

Edith G
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May 1, 2023 10:22 pm
Reply to  Edith G

I don’t see the edit button, I meant to say that I usually CAN take watch gore scenes.

Aaron3000
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May 3, 2023 10:20 pm
Reply to  Edith G

Interestingly, the eye scene was (to me anyway) the least squirmy scene in Hostel, mainly because the makeup effect looked like… well, makeup. That was one case where showing too much diluted the effectiveness of the shock.

cappiethedog
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May 4, 2023 1:44 am
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thegue mentioned It Follows. The filmmaker figured out a way to reinvent John Carpenter’s Halloween. The 1978 original is a low-budget masterpiece, but it had the unfortunate effect of creating a subgenre what Roger Ebert coined “the dead teenager film”. I’ve seen Hostel. I like it. But it’s another horror film with a body count.

That’s why I’m really high on Ari Aster(Midsommar). His debut film, Hereditary, contains just one death, a young girl. Her mother, played by Toni Collette has a very convincing crying scene, and arguably, it’s the scariest thing in the film. In my opinion, he’s paying homage to Ebert. Hereditary is cut from the same cloth as The Exorcist. And in one of Ebert’s essays, he links Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers to The Exorcist.

Hostel is inspired. It’s weird to say out loud that the filmmaker makes murder entertaining. But the untimely deaths are better than your average untimely deaths. That takes some skill. Because a lot of these horror films are scary, in the sense, that what depresses me is what somebody else finds fun. PaulyStyreen makes mention of the “torture porn” genre. I guess I’m getting older. But I find that stuff disturbing. Hostel “is” part of that subgenre, but it’s too well-made to dismiss.

So, yay?

cappiethedog
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May 6, 2023 4:53 pm

People confuse schlock for shock. In film, I was taught to believe that schlock is a good thing; an inspired B-film. Shock, I guess, would be content without a form? Just, stab! stab! stab! Like Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

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May 1, 2023 11:33 pm

Nice topic, Phylum.
“The Exorcist” is still after all these years the number one horror movie of all time. The effect it had on people of the time (especially Catholics) still resonates to this day.
I would put the original “Psycho” at number two and for young ones,
“The Birds” at three ( I still eye crows with trepidation all these years later).
Of the modern ones, of course “Get Out” and “Us” are on the top of the list
but “Breathe” stands out as one to watch!.

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May 2, 2023 3:24 am
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I’m in awe of that scene in which Regan is on the shaking bed, and she’s crying out for her mother.

You believe the devil is in that room.

It’s exactly like Jaws. You don’t need to see the shark. But I believe Spielberg when he says that the shark was malfunctioning.

I emphatically agree that it’s “the number one horror movie of all time”.

Did you see Uncut Gems? There is a reference to The Exorcist at the beginning, and, in the final shot. It’s really, really clever. If you haven’t seen Uncut Gems, I’m not going to ruin it for you.

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May 2, 2023 5:08 pm

I’m not big on horror movies. It’s bad enough watching cringe comedy for me (ie Ricky Gervais’ The Office is so painfully funny in its cringeiness, I almost can’t watch it), I just have no desire to watch most any films in the horror genre. Real life is scary enough, why would I want to expose myself to fake scary, you know?!

But True Crime documentaries? I will watch them all day. And night. And next several days. [Shrugs] Yeah, I don’t get it either.

But I do agree, too much is a rehash these days, whether it’s remaking a old film or its yet another ‘found footage’ or some meta wink-wink film. People, find a new angle already!

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May 2, 2023 11:44 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

I’ll stan for Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes. When the new season of Stranger Things begin, I’ll definitely watch it again.

It’s not a documentary, but I love David Fincher’s Zodiac. I just switched over to Time-Warner. It’s a free Flix on-demand film. I also like watching detectives solve stuff.

Aaron3000
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May 5, 2023 12:58 am

The scariest horror films are those that tap into the viewer’s personal experience. Currently watching Smile, and had to pause it about 50 minutes in. It’s got its share of jump scares, and I can see where the story is going (although I’m hopeful for some sort of unexpected twist), but two plot points hit close to home. One, my cat (the one that appeared in mt’s “All Over The World” video) disappeared without a trace two summers ago. Two, my wife suffers from insomnia, and during a particularly long sleepless stretch back in 2015 had some extremely vivid hallucinations. Like, to the point where even though what she was seeing and hearing had no basis in reality, it was absolutely real to her. Needless to say, this movie is getting under my skin.

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May 7, 2023 9:13 pm
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Damn it, finished watching Smile and what a let down. The second half was basically more jump scares and eventually some dumb effects we’ve seen before in other films. The ending could’ve actually been a true ending (no spoilers here, but it was obvious what Rose needed to do to make certain the chain was truly broken forever… it was a prime opportunity for a downer ending that was also a “happy” ending, instead of a set up for a possible sequel).

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