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Body Horror and Me: Gore and Gender Identity

The first time I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing was when I fell in love with everything that has to do with body horror. From the vile creatures of David Cronenberg to the terrifying descriptions of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, if the movie, comic, book or illustration that I’m watching somehow pushes the body into its most horrifying and disgusting limits, chances are, I’m going to love it. The weird thing about it is that I have no idea why, and to be honest, I’ve never asked myself why until today. 

I would say that I’m a horror fan, but to be honest, that’s a pretty new development. Before I turned 16, I couldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of a horror film and could barely finish a horror book. I can’t tell you when or why this changed, but suddenly movies like Alien were being added to the list of my favorite movies, and I started going crazy for books like House of Leaves. But as much as I began to fall in love with all kinds of horror, what interested me the most was body horror. 

The Thing (1982), dir. John Carpenter, cinematography by Dean Cundey

Unlike anything else in the horror genre, body horror made me feel highly uncomfortable and engaged at the same time. My fascination over the terrifying alterations and mutations was unmatched by any jump scare or torture scene. I didn’t know if it was the visual effects, the reaction of the characters, or the concepts around the twisted metamorphoses, but I constantly craved more and more body horror. To understand this obsession, maybe it would help to do some research.

In his essay, Unruly Bodies, Unquiet Minds, Andrew Tudor hypotheses that if horror is a genre that builds itself on the bases of transgression, then body horror is the search for the body’s transgression, and what are our bodies if not the boundaries between ourselves and the outside world? So, basically, body horror is just an exploration of what happens when we take those boundaries and transform them into something unrecognizable and perverse. What once were defined boundaries are now blurred into something different. 

In the words of Tudor himself: “Within this unruly body, an unquiet mind is concealed in a welter of ambiguities and in retreat  from the unreliability of fundamental categorical assumptions.” Or, in simpler words, when your torso has turned into a giant jaw and your head into a spider-like creature, how the fuck are you supposed to understand yourself?  

We now Know that body horror is the transgression of the boundaries in which we find ourselves, but to be honest, that doesn’t explain why I become so obsessed with it. So maybe the answer lies within my personal history. Now, my relationship with my body is complicated, to say the least. Even though I have a lot of issues with self-esteem and self-love, my physical appearance was never an issue. I have always been a skinny and long-ish person, and even though some kids in school teased me about my appearance, it never really bothered me. The issues started when I hit puberty but probably not in the ways you think. 

For me, puberty was not a long and torturous process; it actually went really fast. In just a month or two, I had grown a lot taller, I started to grow some facial and pubic hair, pimples began to appear, and even though I rarely exercised, I was able to see the signs of some muscle development. I was utterly terrified, not because of hair growing in strange places or because of the red spots on my face, instead what really scared me was that I was beginning to look manly.

It is not that I was extremely feminine before or that I wanted to be more feminine; it’s just that for the first time, I started to see myself as a man. For the first time, my gender actually seemed important. I wasn’t sure who I was, and I sure as hell didn’t know who I wanted to be. During high school, there were moments after taking a shower that I would look at the mirror and feel inadequate with my own body. Years later, I would learn these were moments of body dysphoria and that I was not a man but a non-binary person, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The Fly (1986), dir. David Cronenberg, cinematography by Mark Irwin

Around the beginning of 2020 (the same time that my horror obsession began), I was in a better place mentally than where I was three years prior, but with this mental stability came a clearer mind, and with a clearer mind came questions. A shit ton of questions. I was already out as a bisexual person, but I still felt that something was holding me back. Once again, this feeling only grew stronger the moments I had to confront either my masculinity or (more importantly) my body. 

One way or another, I started to get into gender philosophy and queer theory, and suddenly I began to get familiarised with terms such as “transgender,” “non-binary,” “gender dysphoria,” etc. After of years of wandering what the fuck was wrong with me, I was finally learning words that made me felt comfortable with myself and who I was.  

So taking all of this into account, it might start to seem obvious why body horror took such a firm grip on me. Even though I wasn’t conscious about it, I was relating to the victims of such warped transformations. In some way, I saw the transgressions all those bodies suffered as a graphic representation of all the ways I felt about my body, especially during those first days after puberty. 

Anyone who has gone through gender dysphoria can tell you that there are times your body feels like the most disgusting of creatures. I can say without exaggeration that there are moments where my reflection makes me more uncomfortable than any scene in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

Don’t misunderstand me; I love being non-binary. I love that I can finally understand myself in a way that doesn’t feel restraining or overwhelming. Still, things like dysphoria don’t just go away, so honestly, I am pretty thankful I have something like body horror. It might be weird (and some might say psychotic), but through all of the odd and horrific transformations that body horror has to offer, I can process some of the worst and most uncomfortable feelings that haunt me. 

Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott, cinematography by Derek Vanlint

So let’s say I somewhat agree with Tudor. Let’s say that body horror is the way we explore our bodily boundaries. Because for a long time, I wasn’t able to see or be comfortable with my own boundaries, but thanks to the twisted minds that pushed those boundaries to their limits, today, I can live happily with them. Maybe you will too.

So do yourself a favour and go find some gross and depraved body horror. 

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Film

The Definitive Ranking of Scooby-Doo Movies Pt. 3

39. Scooby-Doo! Adventures: The Mystery Map

This time it’s not animated or live-action. Now, we have puppets! Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind it. I love the Muppets, Dark Crystal, and more. Puppets are rad, and they look AMAZING here, borrowing the designs from A Pup Named Scooby-Doo when they’re around ten years old. But this is one of the few times that the franchise doesn’t feel aimed at the general public but strictly at kids. That’s not bad, but since I’m not the target audience, it did bore me. But you never know, maybe you’ll like it, as I hear a lot of people did! And if you have a little kid, this will for sure be a great option to introduce them to Scooby.

38. LEGO Scooby-Doo! Blowout Beach Bash

For those who didn’t know: There are LEGO Scooby-Doo movies. Short-films too! This one is the second of the two that are currently out, and…I’m not a big fan. It’s kind of a pirate story, which would be awesome if the characters weren’t so annoying and forgettable. Not a bad option, but definitely not one I would recommend even if you feel like watching a LEGO Scooby-Doo movie.

37. Scooby-Doo! And The Monster Of Mexico

If you’re a fan of cryptids, this movie will probably make you angry. For the second movie with the ‘’What’s New, Scooby-Doo’’ animation style in the franchise, the main monster is meant to be the chupacabra. As you may know, the monster is supposed to look like a demonic lizard/dog, but this movie completely ignores that, turning it into a purple bigfoot. I used to like this one a lot as a kid, but I don’t think it aged well, feeling like a very plain movie in every single aspect.

36. Scooby-Doo! And The Legend Of The Vampire

Is there anything cooler than vampires? I honestly don’t think so. So this movie could be really great…But it isn’t. This is the previous movie to Monster of Mexico, and the animation is just bad. It’s not anyone’s fault, actually. The industry was crossing over from traditional animation to digital, and it took a lot of time to work. But it still doesn’t look good. Especially when you consider that this is the first appearance of the Hex Girls since Witch’s Ghost, a movie that had amazing, very stylish animation. But now, they look plain and boring. It’s not even a design and animation problem only; they get kidnapped and take the role of damsels in distress that are out of the picture for most of the movie. But wait, that’s not even the worst thing this movie did to the Hex Girls, as they decided, for some reason, to whitewash Luna. Truly one disappointment after another.

35. LEGO Scooby-Doo! Haunted Hollywood

The first LEGO Scooby-Doo movie! And it’s pretty cool. The setting makes this movie, as the gang explores a film studio nearing bankruptcy as it’s being haunted by monsters portrayed in the past by Boris Karnak from old classic movies from the studio. It’s not as good-looking as The Lego Movie or The Lego Batman Movie, but it’s still a great setting that feels perfectly fitting for Scooby-Doo, as the show itself was inspired by the monster movies from Universal back in its origins.

34. Aloha, Scooby-Doo!

This is a fun enough movie. But impossible to ignore a lot of things it does wrong. As the title might’ve spoiled, it takes place in Hawaii. It doesn’t paint the islanders in the best way, but I’m not the correct individual to speak about that. Watching it with that in mind, it’s entertaining, while not using the setting as I believe would be best for a Scooby-Doo movie, often taking place in daylight and same as every other movie from this era, very clean. While it has its own atmosphere, there is a level of depth that can be found in both previous and future projects in the franchise that is severely lacking here.

33. Scooby-Doo! Pirates Ahoy!

This is an excellent idea from the start. First, because pirates are the cool version of cowboys. Second, because it takes place on a desolated ship in the middle of the ocean. It’s a gimmick present in quite a few Scooby-Doo movies and shows, but it always works. It’s not very inclined to horror, but it still adds a sense of urgency that makes for a great atmosphere. Also, if pirates are cool, just wait until you see ghost pirates.

32. Chill Out, Scooby-Doo:

Snow stories are a tradition in Scooby-Doo, ever since the first show. As someone who grew up in a very cold city and is very sensitive to heat, they always feel very cozy and made for me, so obviously, there are points added for that alone. But this is still a really fun movie, with a returning character from a previous, something that is unusual since the gang tends to run around the whole wide world on their own, and there’s also a threatening villain despite how obvious it is to the setting.

31.  Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins

Okay, hear me out. Everyone loves the two live-action movies from 2002 and 2004, obviously. It’s just how things work. But the two movies that came after and premiered only on Cartoon Network are often overlooked, which is understandable, but I think there’s something really enjoyable to hear if you like Scooby-Doo. Indeed, it doesn’t have the budget the theatrically-released movies had, but I think that makes it charming. The old Scooby cartoons looked and were cheap, with stiff animation and a lot of mistakes, but that didn’t make them any less great. This looks like something fans could make, and while that will turn off a lot of people, it gives it a very particular vibe that sets it apart from the rest. Besides, it’s a decent ghost story, and the cast does a good job.

30. Scooby-Doo! Curse Of The Lake Monster

The sequel to Mystery Begins follows the group now united as a real team and acting as Mystery Incorporated, solving mysteries everywhere they go. They take some jobs at Daphne’s uncle’s country club but, of course, are met with a frog monster and a witch. It seems they have stepped up the budget without losing the vibes from the first movie and combining them with a campier story which works really well. It makes one choice I’m a big fan of, and it’s an all-around fun movie to watch if you’re a Scooby fan.

29. Scooby-Doo! And The Goblin King

This could be a serious contender for the best Halloween movie in the franchise. It’s an exciting quest through a supernatural world to save not only the gang itself but quite possibly the entire humanity. There’s goblins (duh), the headless horseman, sentient skeletons, werewolves, witches, fairies, a charismatic pumpkin, and more. The only thing I’m not sold on is the fairies’ design and the fact that Fred, Daphne, and Velma are not very important to the movie. But nothing big, much less something that takes away the fun from the whole spectacle.

28. Scooby-Doo! And The Loch Ness Monster

A great movie for cryptid fans, although I believe everyone had a Loch Ness Monster phase at some point. It’s a pretty cool movie with some twists and turns, funny characters, and it also gets into Daphne’s family tree! The CGI might be a bit dated, but this is still one of the bests movies to come out of the What’s New era, getting into a famous monster once more, this time in a more successful way.

27. Scooby-Doo! And The Samurai Sword

The movies from this era took a turn away from mystery and horror and decided to take it into action and adventure, and there’s probably no better proof than this one. It’s not even much of a mystery, but more of a quest, with ninjas and samurais thrown in. There are tons of sequences where Daphne gets to shine, so I’m very happy with it. But even besides that, it’s a very entertaining and silly movie.

26. Scooby-Doo! In Where’s My Mummy?

I’m not the biggest fan of What’s New, neither the movies nor the show. I grew up with it, but watching it now feels a little…plain. Both in its little dedication to take any risk at all and in its animation. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be enjoyed and that there are some real gems in it. In my opinion, the best to come out of it is Where’s my Mummy. The title might give away where it’s set, but what really propels this movie is its mystery, which has one of the greatest twists of all the franchise. One that you should truly see for yourself.

25. Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare

The current era of Scooby-Doo shines in what I think the franchise does best: try unexpected and innovative things. With this movie, the creative team wanted to do a Scooby-Doo slasher, and honestly, I dig it. This is easily the most horror-oriented movie since Zombie Island, taking place in a summer camp where the gang work as counselors, very obviously inspired by Friday the 13th. I’m not sure if it’s as much of a horror movie as Zombie Island since that movie completely ditched the Scooby-Doo formula, but the atmosphere is spot-on. If you feel like watching a modern but darker Scoovie, this is the one.

24. Scooby-Doo! Stage Fright

This movie was made for me. It’s a reimagination of The Phantom of the Opera, which as a fan of the Universal Classic Monsters, I love. It’s also made by Mystery Incorporated’s director, the best Scooby-Doo show. But above all, it’s a Daphne-Fred-centric movie, and it’s heartwarming when it comes to them. Although if you’re not a fan of that, it’s not a problem, as it is a really funny movie, with probably the most twists in any piece of Scooby-Doo media, to the point where it’s a little bit ridiculous in a good way.

23. Scooby-Doo! Shaggy’s Showdown

You would maybe expect this one to be lower. I’m not particularly big on westerns, but it’s still a fun and entertaining movie that focuses on Shaggy’s family with a bice mystery. It’s not amazing or anything, but an effective movie that just does what it does well.

22.  Scooby-Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery

I don’t have a single clue about wrestling, if I’m honest. I don’t plan on knowing more either. But yet, this movie was really enjoyable. Since I’m not a fan of wrestling or the WWE, I was able to explore the excitement for it from the gang’s view, mainly through Scooby and Shaggy, so it’s just like if they were another set of fictional characters to me. And it works surprisingly well. I’m not an automatic fan of Scooby movies that stray away from the horror, and the monster in this is just an animal, which I’m not a fan of either. But it is still a threatening villain that adds some sense of urgency while we get to see the great and silly interactions between the two cast of characters.

21. Scooby-Doo! And The Gourmet Ghost

If it was not evident enough already, I love when we find out about someone from the gang’s family, especially if they’re either a real person or a famous fictitious character. It adds to the wonderfully weird and nonsensical canon that the franchise doesn’t really bother to follow, and I love it. Now the gang is guests on Fred’s uncle’s Inn, where not only us but also Fred finds out that his uncle, Bobby Flay, is a famous chef with his own TV show that he does in that same Inn. Curiously, that’s not where Fred’s family exploration ends, as part of the mystery revolves around Mystery Incorporated trying to clear the name of one of Fred’s ancestors who might’ve been a spy for the British during the civil war, all while the supposed ghost of that ancestor tries to spoil the TV show. Although the premise sounds very weird and unnatural on paper, it works surprisingly well, resulting in a very engaging mystery.

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Uncategorized

GateCrashers: Happy Hour Presents Bloody Michael, A “HALLOWEEN” Inspired Cocktail

You must be ready for him… If you don’t, it’s your funeral.”

Halloween is not just my favorite holiday, but also my favorite time of year. I enjoy looking out and seeing the foliage turn color, and feeling the wind begin to bite as the cold front moves in. Coincidentally enough, the town I reside in is called Haddonfield, the namesake for the one that Michael Myers continues to terrorize. So, on a night such as this, when the leaves are blowing in the street and the moon is the only light around, I find myself looking out the window for something. Or, more importantly, for someone. Might as well make him a drink.

INGREDIENTS

2 Cups of Tomato Juice

1 Cup of Vodka

¼ Cup of Lemon Juice

2 Teaspoons of Worcestershire Sauce

2 Teaspoons of Horseradish

2 Teaspoons of Tabasco

½ Teaspoon Celery Salt

½ Teaspoon Black Pepper

Ice

MATERIALS

16 oz Mason Jar

Measured Shot Glass

Cocktail Shaker w/ Strainer

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Pour Worcestershire Sauce, Horseradish, Tabasco, Celery Salt, and Black Pepper into Cocktail Shaker.
  2. Pour ½ cup of Lemon Juice into shaker.
  3. Pour 1 cup of Vodka into shaker.
  4. Pour 2 cups of Tomato Juice into shaker.
  5. Shake all ingredients in the shaker for 15 – 20seconds.
  6. Strain ingredients into Mason Jar with ice.
  7. Let it settle.
  8. Enjoy!
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Episodes

James Bond 007

Today’s podcast is all about the most famous British spy the world over! No, not Austin Powers, it’s James Bond! Take a listen for a discussion on Daniel Craig’s now 15 year run as the character ahead of the imminent release of his final film: No Time to Die!

Subscribe now or listen below!

Halloween GateCrashers

The GateSlashers continue their dive into all things horror as the Grave Robber gathers a fresh group of innocents to experience The Night He Came Home. Yes, we’re here today to talk about Halloween 1978, and Halloween 2018, to get you prepped on everything Michael Myers before the new film releases this week!
  1. Halloween
  2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  3. Interview with Marcus Parks (Last Podcast on the Left)
  4. James Bond 007
  5. X-Men
Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Family-Friendly Horror

I love horror. You probably know that already though. It is, afterall, one of the more notable aspects of who I am, mainly because I basically never shut up about it. I also love introducing people to horror, a task that I understand can be difficult when you might be a bit more on the squeamish side or when you have young children who are difficult to get away from, especially during the pandemic. So, since I’m talking about horror for older audiences next month, I thought it would be nice (and super fun, let’s face it) to write about family-friendly horror this month. This is the realm of Tim Burton and Scooby-Doo, the kind of movies that you look back on as the first stepping stones to a life-long love of spooky stuff. The kinds of things that Halloween just isn’t complete without. So, without further a-do, it’s showtime!

Beetlejuice (1988), dir. Tim Burton, United States

Beetlejuice is a Tim Burton movie from before the name Tim Burton meant movies like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dumbo (2019). It’s Burton’s second feature film, his follow up to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and becuase of that, it marks his first collaborations with Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, both of whom would go on to star in four and three of Burton’s movies respectively. As I alluded to previously, by now Burton’s name doesn’t carry the same respect as it does. To put it bluntly, Burton hasn’t consistently made good movies since he made Ed Wood in 1994. Yes there are exceptions like Corpse Bride in 2004 and, depending on your opinion, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007 but, over all, Burton hasn’t been doing great work since the 90s. I mean, just look at Dumbo (2019). It’s not great! I digress.

The film is the story of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), a recently deceased couple who find that their house has been bought by the Deetz family (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Wright, and Winona Ryder), a wealthy family from the city. In an effort to get the Deetzes out of their home, the Maitlands enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist” who promises to get rid of the living for any ghosts who need his help and who can be summoned by saying his name three times. It’s more fun than scary and is buoyed by a killer cast. O’Hara is, per usual incredible, playing an eccentric wealthy woman prone to hysterics with the same skill she would show 27 years later as Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek (2015-20). Keaton meanwhile, is quite frankly, disgusting, which is exactly what he should be; after all, he’s a rotting sleazeball covered in mold. As for Ryder, this is the role where she became the pattern after which every edgy goth-lite girl modeled themselves; throughout the film, she spouts now-iconic lines like “my whole life is a dark room” and “I myself am strange and unusual”. The kind of stuff that launched a thousand hot topic shirts. 

Beetlejuice is a film that takes place in both the plain world of the living and the seemingly vibrant but in reality, doldrums realm of the Netherworld; a place populated by the dead that takes the form of an office full of colorful, imaginative caseworkers, their assistants, and those awaiting their appointments, all of them sporting signs which point to the causes of their deaths. The production design of the Netherworld realm takes its cues from the German Expressionism films which have influenced the set design of Burton’s films, both animated and live-action across his career. Essentially, to sum up my spiel about this movie, Beetlejuice is fun and creative and made with enough love and care that it’s lived on in the hearts and minds of many for decades now. Oh no, I said his name three times, didn’t I?

Goosebumps (2015), dir. Rob Letterman, United States

After being accidentally released by Zach Cooper (Dylan Minette), the monsters previously contained inside the books, led by Slappy from the Night of the Living Dummy series (voiced by Jack Black) decide to seek their revenge against Stine for keeping them locked up all this time. Zach, along with the help of his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) and Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) spend the night attempting to save the world and put all of the monsters back in the books. 

It’s a veritable who’s-who of the Goosebumps series with appearances from The Abominable Snowman for Pasadena, one of my personal favorites, the giant mantis from Shocker on Shock Street, and as mentioned previously, from Slappy. I’m not going to pretend that Goosebumps is a masterpiece because that’s neither what it is nor what it was intended to be. Instead, I’m going to say the truth about it which is that it’s a fun, spooky movie with a score by the king of fun spooky movies, Danny Elfman, and a great performance by Jack Black, who has yet to let me down once.

ParaNorman(2012), dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler, United States

The second feature film from stop-motion animation studio Laika,  ParaNorman is a follow-up to their previous film, Coraline. It is the story of Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), an 11-year-old boy who can speak to the dead. Norman is an outsider in both his family and his town at large. He’s a strange kid; he lives and breathes horror and claims to see and speak to the dead. But that strangeness, that outsider status becomes his greatest strength because it’s what allows him to break the 300-year-old curse that plagues his small town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts.

ParaNorman is about the consequences of giving in to fear and suspicion of others and it explores those themes by telling a story connected to witch trials, the most famous of which took place in Massachusetts. It’s an example of how movies made for kids can and should be brilliant. There’s a video essay by CJ The X called Skipping the First 5 Minutes of Tangled;there’s a line in that video that instantly stuck with me, “kids like good movies, they also like bad movies but they’re kids! We’re adults, it’s our responsibility to give them good art that’s gonna last.” Kids deserve movies that they can look at throughout their life in different ways, movies that reflect their experiences back to them.

I was always a lonely, spooky kid and when I saw it in theatres it instantly resonated with me in ways that I wasn’t able to fully understand until much later. Kids will consume candy-covered garbage if that’s what we provide them with but they’ll eat up good quality content with equal gusto, ParaNorman is the quality content that we need to put more of into the world. Kids are smarter than we tend to give them credit for and they deserve to have media that understands that.

Scooby-Doo (2002), dir. Raja Gosnell, United States

Scooby-Doo is one of the best movies that James Gun (Dawn of the Dead, The Suicide Squad) has ever written, second only to Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed A.K.A. the movie that I forced my mom to let me stay home from school and watch on loop the minute it came out on VHS. Both of these movies are ingrained in the fabric of who I am, they were on a constant loop throughout my childhood. There are parts that feel firmly stuck in the 2000s but overall, Scooby-Doo is super fun with aspects of it that feel like a love letter to the original cartoon.  

There’s a lot that has been said about this movie but I’m going to pick just two of them. The first is that the cast is great; Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, Freddy Prinze Jr, and Matthew Lillard (who has been voicing Shaggy in the cartoons since 2009) are all fantastic as the human members of Mystery Inc. My second point is somewhat related to that, Freddy Prinze Jr. says one of the best lines in 2000s cinema when he says “what up dog. And uh dog” in a scene that also contains a Sugar Ray cameo. Have I mentioned that this is a deeply 2000s movie yet? Because it is. Oh yeah, and the lead single off of the soundtrack for this movie is a song by OutKast featuring Killer Mike and Sleepy Brown, the music video for which features Matthew Lillard as Shaggy Rogers and Scooby himself as well as the Mystery Machine. Oh yeah, and Shaggy is on the soundtrack too. What a film, we’re lucky to live in a world where it exists. 

Addams Family Values (1993), dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, United States

Of the two live-action Addams Family movies, Addams Family Values is easily my favorite. The cast is just as good as they were in the first movie only this time they have the addition of Joan Cusack as Debbie Jillinsky. To me, the highlights of this movie have always been Morticia’s (Angelica Huston) ethereal aura, Wednesday’s (Christina Ricci) everything, and Debbie Jillinsky. I say this about basically every scene in any movie I like but the Malibu Barbie scene is iconic. Beyond that, Addams Family Values is just a great time that’s hard to grow tired of. I’ve been watching it every year since I was like seven and I still have yet to get tired of it.

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Our Fears on Film w/ Neo

Welcome back to Guest Recs, this month’s guest is my sister Neo. Despite her occasionally questionable taste in movies (looking at you Resident Evil), she generally tends to have really great taste in movies.

Back when I started the column I asked her if she would like to be part of the first batch and she (thankfully) said yes. I’ll be honest, I didn’t fully know what to expect when she agreed to do this. Afterall, she could have done everything from bad video game movies to The Matrix power hour. Instead, she blew me away with this rumination on fear in film. As per usual all of these recs are cosigned by me but I just wanted to make very clear that I think all of these are at the very least fun movies that should be seen at least once.


Our world has always had its fears, festering up from deep inside of us at rational and irrational times alike. Whether they be primal fears founded in rationality, like fear of heights, or whether they be more modern fears of a more irrational variety such as fears based around social media. Everyone experiences a particular breed of anxiety from time to time when faced with their fears, valid or invalid as they may be, with some people experiencing it to a crippling amount. Like most media, films often reflect the fears we hold both intentionally and unintentionally, and in some cases have been shown to increase already existing fears societies hold. 

It can be important to recognize what fears that media can be showing us, even unintentionally, and to be critical of them. Films can be used to direct vitriol at different groups and cause ostracization of them by associating different people with terrible things. They can be used as a form of propaganda against groups that the writer or director doesn’t like, or ones that are easy targets to tear down if society already looks down on them. When we see a depiction in a film that scares us it is important to ask ourselves what message the film is trying to get across.

Halloween (1978) dir. John Carpenter, United States

Halloween is an all-time classic horror movie that still holds up as frightening to this day, with Michael Myers/The Shape remaining an iconic staple in slasher horror alongside other giants of the genre such as Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger. It is a film that prays on many fears people in society hold, the silent killer, the home invasion, being hunted, but the specific fears I’m focusing on here are those of the fear of the other and the fear of the mentally ill. Both of these fears can be tied together as they often go hand in hand in reality. 

People fear those with ‘scary’ mental illnesses such as psychotic disorders because they are different, because they are other and because it is hard for them to understand the disorders and what they mean. People hear the word psycho in psychotic and picture Patrick Bateman, the eponymous American Psycho or Norman Bates of Psycho fame, when in reality those with psychotic disorders are nothing like the characters meant to represent them on screen. Michael Myers can be seen as another example of the archetypal Psycho Killer (qu’est-ce que c’est?) often found in horror media, a harmful stereotype representing those with psychotic disorders as brutal and unstoppable killers. When in fact they are just people with a mental illness who aren’t going to just start walking around town killing people at random. 

It is easy to see Michael Myers as The Other. He was originally called The Shape, a nebulous title that represented his obscured nature, he always wears his mask, never really revealing his face, and he is almost inhuman seeming with his impossible survival through several attempts to take him down, whether they be by a knitting needle, a gun, or a fire. Despite the fears it can represent, intentionally or not, Halloween is still an excellent horror movie that I highly recommend to those who have never seen it, and highly recommend a rewatch for those who have. 

Train to Busan (2016) dir. Yeong Sang-ho, South Korea

Train to Busan is one of the best zombie movies ever made. While I’m sure some would love to debate this opinion I will plug my ears and ignore them as someone who typically hates zombie movies but loved Train to Busan. The fears it prays on are both obvious and more metaphorical, with it having elements of fears of death and disease, but also having elements of the fear of growing distant from and losing family. 

Trapped on a train surrounded by the living dead, a businessman is forced to confront how distant he has become from his young daughter due to his workaholic nature and ignorance. The film shows how his greed for money and his choice to work instead of spending time with his daughter has pushed a wedge between them, and how it was likely the cause for his divorce. 

Throughout the film, he is forced to reflect on his own nature and his fear of becoming separated from his daughter, both in an abstract and literal sense, as he traverses the train with a group of survivors attempting to reach the other group. The film also shows the fear of disease, with the character of the greedy COO fearing the group trying to connect with his group could be infected and attempting to keep them locked out to save his own skin while ignoring their insistence that they are not infected. Everyone fears disease, and many people fear driving a wedge between themselves and others. Often these fears are rational and irrational alike, and they are ones the film doesn’t use to stigmatize anything but greed and ignorance. Train to Busan is a film I’d recommend even if zombie films aren’t typically your cup of tea.

The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino, United States

The Strangers is a film that preys on our fears of stalking and home invasion, similar to the original The Purge but preceding it by a number of years. It tells the story of a couple who are attacked in the night by three masked strangers who invade their home and attempt to hunt them down, simply because they can. Many people have anxiety around these particular fears. Is that bang outside a raccoon or is someone trying to smash a window and get in? Was that creak on the floorboard the house settling or is someone creeping down the hall? Is that shadow in the corner of my eye a shirt hanging on a chair or is it a person trying to hide? 

These are fears further exacerbated by the real home invasions, stalkings, and killings that happen in our real world. They are fears very much based in reality, but ones that are often irrational. While The Strangers isn’t a perfect horror film it is one that I love and recommend to anyone who doesn’t have intense anxiety around home invasions.

Resident Evil (2002) dir. Paul W. S. Andersen, United States

Resident Evil is a film series I will admit is not very good. However, it is incredibly fun to watch, and I recommend at least watching the battle against Wesker from Resident Evil: Afterlife. Both the films and the games explore our fears of disease and our fears of corporations. The T-Virus and its variants across the franchise seem nigh-unstoppable, even when Raccoon City is hit with a nuclear bomb the T-Virus continues to spread across the world. Fear of disease is one that is incredibly prevalent, especially today. Everyone is worried about becoming sick from something, even more, so something that could kill you or that could remove your autonomy. 

Resident Evil also represents our often justified fear of corporations, as the incredibly shady Umbrella Corporation is directly responsible for the outbreak either by incompetence or purposeful infection in an attempt to experiment on an unwilling populace. We often fear what corporations are doing behind the curtain, whether it’s an invasion of privacy, destruction of the environment, or simply causing problems for everyone via sheer incompetence. I highly recommend the Resident Evil series for anyone looking for a good time, at least not critically.

The Matrix (1999) dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, United States

The Matrix is a classic sci-fi film and one that I knew would be on this list for certain as soon as I knew I was doing this. It’s my favorite film of all time, and despite not being a horror movie like the others, it still explores some of our societal fears, such as the fear of becoming complacent and the fear of reality not being what we perceive it as. Within the Matrix itself, people are expected to conform to the computer-generated fantasy. Conformity means the computers can keep using the human race as batteries and soylent green. When people don’t conform, such as the characters that teach Neo about the truth of the Matrix, it poses a threat directly to society and the way things are done. The systematic issues are ones the robots don’t want to be challenged as it would threaten their position of power. Sounds a little familiar, even today. 

It can be scary as well to think of the Matrix conceptually. It is scary to imagine the world we know is not real but is instead lines of code on a computer telling us things are a certain way, that things are good when they very much are not. I highly recommend the Matrix to everyone who watches movies. It is a classic and a pioneer for sci-fi visual effects, and an excellent franchise all around. It’s also a good time to watch considering the fourth film in the series comes out this holiday season.

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Film

The Night House is a Quiet Horror Story with a Deep Mythology

The Night House, the new feature film from director David Bruckner (The Ritual) is, at its most simple, a movie about grief. Grief is not a foreign subject to the horror genre, a fact which is becoming more true in recent years with movies like Midsommar and Mandy placing grief front and centre. The Night House after all, follows Beth (Rebecca Hall) as she recovers from her husband’s unexpected suicide; it has all the trappings of a ghost story — a recent widow, a mostly empty house, strange happenings. But much like the titular house, The Night House is so much more than what it seems.

Rebecca Hall is brilliant the entire time, feeling reminiscent of Toni Collette in Hereditary. She carries the entire film which is by design. This is Beth’s story, her recovery in the face of tragedy. As a result, Beth is alone for most of the movie as she attempts to uncover the mystery of just who her late husband (Evan Jonigkeit) really was. It’s an uncomfortable film at times made more so by Hall’s quiet but intense portrayal of a grieving widow struggling with the realization that she didn’t really know her husband in the first place and that he was not who he seemed in more than just the typical “cheating husband” or “husband hiding a dark secret” ways. Like the hints of a denser, more complicated mythology that we see scattered throughout the film, Owen’s secret is more complicated than either of those options.

Beth (Rebecca Hall) in The Night House / Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Beth’s realization of her lack of awareness is compounded by the scenes in which she views her husband’s secret life from the outside, watching the impressions of previous nights unfolding all at once from outside of a mirrored version of the lake house which she has been living in alone since her husband’s death. There’s both an eeriness and a deep sadness to it. It’s difficult not to mourn for the lack of awareness Beth is losing as she uncovers the mystery. It’s a terrible thing to love someone and to find out that you didn’t know them at all. Thankfully most of us don’t have the “joy” of finding out that our loved ones are actually dark forces intent on killing us who have caused our loved ones to kill women with similar appearances to us in order to trick the spirit into being appeased. 

Parts of The Night House hint at a deeper mythology than what is textually there; Beth finds books on the occult and a book on caerdroia, Welsh turf mazes. While they weren’t used for these purposes in real life, the prop book features a briefly visible paragraph that details that, within the fictional setting of the film, caerdroia were used to confuse and/or weaken dark forces and distract them with false sacrifices. I’m sure you can connect the dots between this and the last sentence of the previous paragraph. But caerdroia are not where the occult aspects of The Night House end; at one point in the movie, Beth finds a voodoo doll in the mirror house. The doll in question is modeled after a real voodoo doll that was found in Egypt and is now held in the Louvre. I’ve seen it in person and I promise you it is just as creepy as the movie’s version of it. Not much is said about the doll beyond the fact that Owen had one of his would-be victims hold it before he attempted to kill her. 

Beth (Rebecca Hall) holds a voodoo doll in The Night House / Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

A final point before we conclude our brief dive into the occult aspects of The Night House. The book on caerdroia contains on one of the end papers a seal from the Ars Goetia, one of the five books in the Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous grimoire on demonology. The Ars Goetia is essentially a guide to summoning demons; all of the usual suspects are in there, Baal, Paimon, Asmodeus. You name it and it is probably in there. The demon of most import to this entire tangent is Andras, a Great Marquis of Hell who sows discord among people. He’s pretty cool for a demon, rides a wolf, carries a sword, has the head of an owl and the body of a winged angel. His seal appears in the book that Beth finds and while he’s never mentioned by name (and God was I waiting for that moment), it’s still unlikely that the appearance of his seal is a coincidence when one considers all of the other work that was put into the occult aspects of the film. Again, feel free to discount this as meaning nothing and just being me going off on a tangent about one of the weird things I happen to know a lot about.

Beth (Rebecca Hall) in The Night House / Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Like Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor and many other recent horror movies, The Night House is a quiet character-driven story that goes off the rails in the last fifteen or so minutes. While I tend to love when a movie does that I felt a bit of fatigue with that trend while watching it. The ending here works and it does so well but it’s impossible for me not to feel that the other shoe is going to drop soon and I will find myself completely tired of these slow horror movies that devolve into chaos just before the end credits roll. In all genres the shiny new concept that becomes a hit ends up driven into the ground, forced down the throats of viewers until eventually we’ve had enough and we just want it to end. I find it highly likely that if the trend continues at the pace it’s been going we will very soon see the fatigue set in to a wider extent. But despite the creeping fatigue I felt from what is steadily becoming an overused concept in horror, The Night House was really good. It was well-done with a creepy atmosphere free from all but one (well-done and well-earned) jumpscare and a stellar performance from Rebecca Hall at it’s centre.

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Film

Reagan’s Recs – Anime

Surprising absolutely no one, I was a pretty big fan of anime when I was in high school. I remember hanging out with my friends at lunch and discussing everything from Madoka Magica to Yuri!!! on Ice. At some point during high school, this excitement and love for the medium faded away, and aside from rewatching some favourites like Tokyo Mew Mew and Princess Tutu every so often, I more or less stopped watching anime.

And then the world started falling apart and I decided to put on Ponyo, a movie that I had loved as a child. And once that was finished I put on Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, two more childhood favorites who were soon joined by movies I hadn’t seen before like Princess Mononoke and Paprika. Through delving back into anime movies I rediscovered my fondness for anime and while not as intense as I used to be, I’ve started watching anime again. And not just ones I’ve seen before. Below are some of my favourites; either ones I’ve loved for years or ones I’ve just recently seen. Check them out even if you don’t especially love anime, you might be surprised.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies. Where do I even start? It’s gorgeously animated (as is the norm) and the backgrounds are beautiful (also the norm.)

It’s about a girl named Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons in the english dub) who, after encountering an (allegedly) heart-eating wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), is cursed by a witch (Lauren Bacall) who turns her into an old woman. In an effort to break the curse, Sophie leaves home and sets off to find a cure in a wasteland aptly called “the waste.” While there she encounters a living scarecrow who she names Turnip Head and finds Howl’s moving castle. After entering it without invitation she meets Howl’s apprentice Markl (Josh Hutchinson) and Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a fire demon whose magic powers Howl’s castle. When Howl finally arrives home, Sophie tells him that she’s a cleaning lady who Calcifer hired.

Howl’s Moving Castle is absolutely a love story but it’s also very much an anti-war movie. Sophie’s country of Ingary is at war with a neighbouring country following the disappearance of Ingary’s Crown Prince. As a result, all of Ingary’s wizards have been drafted to fight, something which requires them to quite literally lose their humanity and transform into monsters, losing the ability to turn back in the process. Miyazaki has never been subtle when it comes to his distaste for war, he did after all refuse to attend the 75th Academy Awards because he “didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq”. It’s a recurring theme in his works and it’s one that really works well here.

Perfect Blue (1997), dir. Satoshi Kon

(CW: Perfect Blue contains depictions of both simulated and attempted sexual assault)

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is the story of Mima, a retired idol who is pursuing an acting career. Over the course of the film, Mima becomes the victim of stalking and loses her grip on reality. 

Today, Perfect Blue feels like a prescient film about the (buzzword warning) dangers of parasocial relationships and the effects they have on both ends as well as having so much to say about the ownership that (typically male) fans feel they have over female creator’s bodies. It’s been almost 25 years since Perfect Blue was released and even though the technology in it is out of date, the plot remains as vital as ever. 

Madoka Magica: Rebellion (2013), dir. Akiyuki Shinbo & Yukihiro Miyamoto

Rebellion is the conclusion to Madoka Magica, a 2011 magical girl anime that follows a group of girls who make a contract with a cat-like being named Kyubey. In return for granting a wish, Kyubey requires the girls led by Madoka Kaname to become magical girls and fight witches. Over the course of that series, Madoka and her fellow magical girls Sayaka, Mami, Kyoko, and Homura learn the real cost of being magical girls.

Rebellion is the third and final movie and the only one to be made up entirely of new material; the first two Beginnings and Eternal serve as recaps of the ten-episode series. Rebellion, meanwhile, picks up after the events of the series and follows Homura Akemi as transfers to a new school in Mitakihara where she meets Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, and Kyoko. Homura and the rest of the girls, joined by Mami’s familiar Bebe, fight creatures called Nightmares as magical girls. Everything is happy and nobody dies. Or do they. Who can tell for sure? I know I won’t be telling you here, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

Akira (1988), dir. Katsuhiro Otomo 

(CW: Akira contains sequences of flashing lights)

Set in the far-off future of 2019, Akira is simply put, fantastic. Everything in it connects to make something incredible; the lighting, the colours, absolutely everything works together perfectly to create genius.

I was a concert band kid in school and because of that scores tend to stick out to me. Akira’s score is, at times, haunting. It feels both mechanical and like a living, breathing thing all at once. Sometimes with literal breaths like in “Battle Against Clown”. The composer, Shōji Yamashiro, drew from Indonesian gamelan music and Japanese noh music while creating the score and the juxtaposition of elements of traditional music with the futuristic setting is fantastic. 

Akira’s cultural impact is impossible to deny; without it, franchises like Pokémon and Naruto may never have grown as popular as they did outside of Japan. As well, it kicked off a wave of Japanese cyberpunk works like Cowboy Bebop and Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Belladonna of Sadness (1973), dir. Eiichi Yamamoto

(CW: Belladonna of Sadness contains graphic depiction of sexual assault and sequences of flashing lights)

I struggled over whether or not to include Belladonna of Sadness, it’s a very heavy film due to the nature of the inciting incident and it’s never been especially easy for me to figure out how to talk about it (my review of it on Letterboxd took several days for me to write as I navigated how to discuss both the subject matter and the beauty of the animation.)

Belladonna of Sadness is a 1973 erotic anime film directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy) and inspired by Jules Michelet’s non-fiction book La Sorcière. The final part of the Animerama trilogy, a trilogy of adult anime films, is the only one of the three that Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Buddha, Princess Knight) had no involvement in. It follows Jeanne, a medieval French peasant woman who, after being sexually assaulted by nobles on her wedding day, turns to witchcraft to seek revenge. 

I love this movie for two reasons: the soundtrack and visuals. Belladonna of Sadness was first described to me as “an erotic prog-rock musical” which is not untrue, that is what it is. The soundtrack, composed by Masahiko Satoh, is fantastic. I’ll often throw it on in the background while I’m working on things and it isn’t an uncommon occurrence for it to get stuck in my head for days on end. Beyond the soundtrack, the visuals are incredible. Inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt and Tarot illustrations as well as the art of Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke, Belladonna of Sadness consists mostly of panning shots of still watercolour paintings and it’s gorgeous and absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

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Film

Mosquito State: Horror within Wall Street

Mosquito State is a film of many spinning plates. Not many of them will be left upright by the end, but the ones that director Filip Jan Rymsza keeps spinning prove to be engaging and unique, albeit a bit inert. It’s a horror film that isn’t particularly interested in scaring you, an allegory that can’t be bothered to keep a straight face, and a dark comedy that skews more dark than comedy. Mosquito State fits many genres, but the genre this reviewer found himself reaching for was tragedy; a creature feature set against the backdrop of financial and moral decay.

It’s trite and unfair at this point to compare the film to its obvious influences because while it may share space with The Fly or even Cosmopolis to some degree, Rymsza imbues the film with his own personal flourishes that give distance. It never settles on just being a mere copy, instead forging its own path on a subject that’s been dissected and torn apart in many films already. For instance, the opening sequence showing the life cycle of a mosquito is wonderful to look at and with Cezary Skubiszewski’s foreboding score gives a feeling for what’s to come, and there’s almost a fantastical element to all of this, as a follow a (rather goofy) CGI mosquito navigating through sewers and streets and eventually into our protagonist.

Oliver Martinez in Mosquito State / Source: Shudder

We meet Richard Boca (Beau Knapp) at a party filled with Wall Street suits and jock yuppie types. From the jump Richard stands out; a quiet and socially awkward man who slinks around by comparison to his boyish yuppie co-workers, even more so compared to his boss Edward Werner (played with immaculate charisma by Olivier Martinez). It is also here where Richard meets the object of his desire in Lena (Charlotte Vega), a woman who understands Richard in a way that not many at his workplace do. They head home together to Richard’s massive brutalist penthouse where the cold detachment becomes even more prevalent, almost a quasi-futuristic look. The penthouse will also be where a large majority of the film will take place, giving a sense of urban isolation, where we finally get into Richard’s head, and where the mosquito infestation begins.

Despite the penthouse giving a sense of a distant future, Rymsza makes sure the audience is aware through the use of news and sports clips that this is the past. When Richard’s algorithm detects a warning of the market crash only for it to be ignored and exploited, he takes matters into his own hands, enacting his own form of justice leading him on a surreal path towards redemption. While his character may lack a bit as a character, only a vessel to transport ideas, Knapp more than makes up for it with his transformative performance, selling the idea wonderfully of a man wanting to be heard and understood. When a coworker asks “Do you really think anything we do can affect the overall market?” Knapps exasperation at his disregard is palpable. “Do you think we’re too small,” he cries out, with a sense of anger and desperation.

A later scene between Richard and his secretary Sally (Audrey Wasilewski) highlights the immediate changes the mosquitos have taken on his psyche with him ranting and raving about mosquitos communicating with him, hunched over as if he were a mad scientist In this moment he is both Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster; a man created by emotionless Wall Street bankers, yet rebelling against his creator. Knapp understands the nuance and utilizes perfect body language to convey all of these emotions in such a short span of time. Truly compelling stuff.

Beau Knapp in Mosquito State / Source: Shudder

The analogy of mosquitos and Wall Street however is a bit on the nose but more than that a lot of Mosquito State just feels… ridiculous? An office party with coworkers dancing in crowns and playing the Trump board game, dream sequences involving his boss in full matador gear, and some music choices that feel more at home within Mr. Robot than they do here all serve to make Mosquito State stand out, but feel too far out and weird for it to really have any real substance outside of its style. It never takes itself too seriously which is a good thing, but as a result a lot of the films lighter moments, like the aforementioned office party, feel ripped from another film entirely.

It was previously mentioned that it was hard to look away from this film and while a lot of that has to do with Knapp’s performance, special mention has to be thrown towards Eric Koretz’s absolutely stunning cinematography, where Richard’s penthouse view of Central Park glows with various shades and hues of reds, purples, and greens. Even exterior scenes within limos, office spaces, and parks render a feeling of a different world entirely, inviting you in, like a fly to sunlight. The comparison to Cronenberg is still unfair and one that I’m hesitant to make, but for these moments, they bring to mind Brandon Cronenberg more so than his father. The films slick presentation within Richard’s apartment and work place feels far more comfortable sharing space with sibling Possessor, another film that focuses on the metamorphosis of the body and psyche during a time of global transition (Possessor‘s focus on technology versus Mosquito States‘s focus on finance).

Mosquito State isn’t a bad film, but it never reaches the heights it aims for. While there are far better films that examine the effects the financial crisis has caused, they never go full tilt in the way this film does which is a credit to Rymsza’s creative vision and directing. While it may be on the nose to a somewhat annoying degree and far sillier than one would hope, the film still provides a lot of great imagery thanks to its cinematography and production design, not to mention its unnerving atmosphere. There’s a lot to like about Mosquito State, it’s just a shame that in spite of all of these qualities the film fumbles towards the finish line, unable to maintain the same energy that propelled us towards it.

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Baby’s First Criterion

by Chris Eddleman.

The last straw was the Disney Corporation of course. Frankly, it was to be expected as they trample across the landscape of art, consuming and homogenizing, gobbling up works, and churning out endless iterations of IP, a palatable paste when once there was challenge and wonder. They don’t want you to own anything they’ve made, they want art, content, as service. And they want control. 

This is to say, after Disney Plus debuted, people were beginning to notice some strange things happening to the movies they were featuring. Disney made some little edits here and there to finished movies, to make them more family friendly. To me, the tipping point was Splash. I had found a clip where Darryl Hannah was running back to the ocean after kissing a bewildered Tom Hanks. And when she turned around, hair had been crudely added to the entire back of her body, seemingly sprouting from her shoulders. This was, of course, to cover up any iota of nudity, as Disney Plus is marketed very strongly to families. 

Was I absolutely upset about covering up this particular instance of nudity? I mean, not exactly. I wasn’t crushed that I was deprived of seeing Darryl Hannah’s backside. I was more just concerned with the stewardship of the Disney Corporation. Can a work of art be subject to this kind of change whenever its impassive overlord feels like it’s necessary? It felt wrong to me, like if someone took whole paragraphs out of my essays years after they were finished. And just like that, I decided streaming services were ultimately not a force for good. They give you rented content that THEY own and can change at their will. This is going to come back and bite me a little bit later in the piece but bear with me. 

This was when I began my foray into physical movies. The only way to ensure the movie I wanted to see, the movie as released, the movie as originally intended, was to grab a Blu-Ray and hold onto it. This pushed my decision to pick up the disk-drive PS5, for the ability to watch 4K UHD movies. This pushed my decision to start grabbing Lord of the Rings, some Scorcese flicks, some newer favorites. But, my physical media love quickly sidled me into the purveyors of fine boutique physical DVD and Blu-Ray releases—The Criterion Collection.

I don’t want to get too into book report style history stuff, so we’ll make this quick. Criterion began in the 80s as a movie distribution company for notable feature films, unbridled by contemporary popularity or country of origin. These include many films that critics consider to be the greatest movies of all time, and in some cases are impossible to find in physical media beyond the Criterion release. They first started with LASERDISCS, before eventually moving to DVDs and BluRays as the format du jour changed. Now that doesn’t sound too exciting but, they also massively influenced the way home videos were presented. They pioneered the letterbox format to preserve the style of older movies, as well as director (and critic) commentaries available alongside the features. Literally, “special features” as a film concept came from the work Criterion did. It’s clearly a company that, at the very least, cares about films as art and considers them worthy of preservation. 

Since getting into Criterion movies, through physical releases and their somewhat recent streaming app, the Criterion Channel, I’ve found a lot of camaraderie with folks on Twitter who are also big fans of their releases. While my experience could be anecdotal (mostly comics folks I met who are also cinephiles and Criterion fans), I’ve found folks who bond over Criterion movies to be incredibly welcoming and sweet, which clashes with the stereotype of cinephiles as stuffy and pretentious. Criterion has two one-day 50% off flash sales on their physical releases each year, while Barnes and Noble have two FULL-MONTH 50% off sales. These sales are kind of quarterly Christmases for the Criterion fans, as we agonize over what to pick off of our wishlists and scramble to share our picks on social media. And, again anecdotally, I’ve found a lot of kinship during these, as no one seems to argue over the merits of one movie over the other, simply commenting with derivations of “Hey good picks!” on a picture of several new BluRays spread over a table. 

But while I like them as a company in general, they’ve been rightfully critiqued in the past for lapses in diversity, especially including Black directors. Since the linked article’s been written, there’s been pretty clear efforts to include more Black directors but, more work can always be done. There’s also quite a gender gap, as only 7% of directors included in the collection were women as of that article. 

The above could certainly be seen as a contributor to why it might be difficult to get people into Criterion movies but, I think the main contributor is what I touched on early- people think that these movies are overly pretentious or impenetrable. I honestly thought that too for a while! I’m the kind of guy who loves a Fast and the Furious as well as a Kurosawa, and I thought they would only get more difficult to watch from there.

However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that tons of these movies, while from another culture or another time, were in general, primarily made to entertain. The Seven Samurai is an incredible work of filmmaking, but it wasn’t just made to be contemplated as some artistic exercise. It was made to dazzle, to entertain an audience! It’s an older film, but it contains colorful characters and rousing action scenes. And I find that to be true with many of them. Granted, you’ll always have some slightly more difficult-to-get-into movies than others. I don’t expect everyone to take to and enjoy Jeanne Dielmann, an incredibly lengthy movie about a Belgian housewife in the 1970s going about her somewhat mind-numbing schedule, even if I did. For every art-house movie, there’s a noir or an action movie that simply could not be denied. 

With that spirit in mind, I have a few picks that I’m going to recommend as a first foray into Criterion movies, whether you stream or pick up one of their fantastic physical releases (seriously, the cover arts alone are worth the price of admission, especially during one of their sales). I’ve also invited some of my movie-loving friends to submit some picks too because as we know, it takes all sorts. 

I hope you the reader tries some of these out. As movie-making companies continue to devour each other, independent art is getting harder and harder to bring to a wide release, and physical releases are getting rarer. Companies seem to prefer to simply stream movies, as it becomes more profitable to make true ownership a thing of the past. Regardless, I think consuming varied art contributes to a well-rounded person, and maybe we should all watch some movies produced in times and countries that we’re less familiar with. With that being said, here are my varied options for dipping your toe into Criterion. 

Chris’s First Pick: The Princess Bride

Hey, remember when I said these movies aren’t all pretentious? I think the best example of this is the crowd-pleasing favorite- The Princess Bride. Chances are you’ve probably already seen this movie and didn’t even realize you’d watched a Criterion Collection film! So ha, perhaps you’re already well on your way to watch all of Dekalog or whatever. But if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, it’s one of my favorite adventure films. A story-within-a-story, we’re given a rousing tale of adventure and love told via kindly grandfather to his sick and clearly-not-interested grandson. 

Just as I was when I first saw this, the grandson is slowly converted as time goes on, as the one-liners and swashbuckling action win him over. It’s kind of a story about the power of stories, which sounds like an incredible cliche, but it ends up just being very earnest in its silliness, and timeless in its presentation. It might not be one of the really “arty” releases, but I think it’s a good toe-dip for someone who might not have seen too many of Criterion’s other releases.

Chris’s Second Pick: Police Story

I didn’t necessarily intend my picks to be viewed in sequential order but, now that I’m writing them out it seems like maybe a good suggestion. Maybe you haven’t watched too many subtitled films. That’s okay! I know it can take some getting used to and for some folks, subtitles are not particularly helpful for accessibility. But for folks who are able, the ability to overcome the “1-inch barrier” you’ve got some great films ahead of you. 

Starting in this case, with the Jackie Chan-helmed (written, directed, AND STARRING?!) movie Police Story. It’s got a fairly simple story about crime and revenge, but the clear reasons to watch are in the physical and spoken humor that Chan and his co-stars (including the amazing Maggie Cheung) convey. Also, this is Jackie Chan as his absolute most ridiculous, performing stunt after stunt in a way that clearly shows he has no regard for and possibly a disdain for his own safety. The climax contains probably the most ridiculous stunt that I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure how the man is alive afterwards. It’s tight action, it’s hilarious comedy, and again I have to reiterate it’s NOT stuffy or pretentious.

Chris’s Third Pick: The Seventh Seal

You know what? Maybe you’ve watched a few of these and decided that you wanted to get whole-hog into some Criterion. Or heck, maybe you’re the kind of person who learned to swim by jumping in the deep end. Anyway, let’s do a 1-2-3-into the pool and talk about one of my favorites of all time- The Seventh Seal

Unlike the first two movies I recommended, The Seventh Seal is pretty moody. It’s a dark tale of a knight (played by the incredible Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades, an adventure that turned sour and showed him the true awfulness that the world can conjure. And even upon returning home, he arrives to a plague-addled land, death at home just as death was abroad. 

Also, throughout his travels to return home in his own land, he plays a game of chess with literal Death, trying to stave off his demise as he struggles with the meaning of life and God. It’s an incredibly dour film but, even the plague and witch-burnings are occasionally interrupted by levity, as two actors from a traveling troupe are joined by the knight and his squire on their travels. 

It’s a film about death and mortality, about the wages of sin and the uncaring attitude of the Almighty. It’s pretty gosh darn dark but, it’s hauntingly beautiful and widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s maybe not a great first Criterion, but I think it should be an early stop on the journey.

Rob’s Pick: Häxan

Maybe my favorite movie-watching experience I ever had was on my birthday a couple years back, when my housemates got me fancy fondue, and we put Häxan on the projector. Häxan is a weird flick. At 1922 it’s still in the era when basic genres were forming, and so it’s not quite documentary, not quite mockumentary; it mixes historical description with fictional illustrations of those historical descriptions.

And those historical descriptions are of what late Medieval and Early Modern people thought about witchcraft, so it’s pretty wild.

I think for most of us Cinema Normies, the Criterion Collection is most importantly an opportunity for us to expand our horizons, to engage not only with movies we’ve never seen but with kinds of movies we have never seen. It’s a chance to experience things we’d never think to put on, or movies we never guessed existed. Without it, I’d still probably have eventually gotten around to folks like Bergman and Tarkovsky. Most of my favorite Criterion movies I’d still have seen some other way. I appreciate the editions of those films, the beautiful cases, the essays, the bonus features, but it’s stuff like Häxan that I’d recommend going for first. Find something weird. Find something that will give you a new kind of experience.

Reagan’s Pick: Funny Games

Wow those games sure aren’t funny! One of the first movies I watched when I got Criterion Channel back last April was Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). For those who are unaware, Funny Games is an Austrian film in which two young men take a family hostage in their own vacation home and psychologically torture them over the course of a night. It’s easily one of the worst times I’ve ever had watching a movie so obviously I loved every minute of it. 

Funny Games is a critique of the kind of film it is, it has you sit and watch what’s happening and then it condemns you for watching it, for enjoying it even. It’s a controversial movie, not everyone enjoys it. In fact, when it was screened at Cannes in 1997 one third of the audience had walked out by the end of the film. Personally, I think that the attendees of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival are cowards but that’s just my opinion. 

If subtitles aren’t your thing, Funny Games received a shot-for-shot remake in 2007 starring Naomi Watts and directed by Haneke himself. It’s pretty good! But honestly, if subtitles aren’t your thing you should probably work on that. There is after all, a literal world of film for you to explore. 

Bobby’s Pick: F For Fake

I used to believe that the documentary genre of filmmaking was very limited in its storytelling. That is until I watched F For Fake, which made me re-evaluate the genre and opened me up to the possibilities inherent in telling a story about a real-life figure, especially with its premise, where Welles’ recounts the story of famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, who was known for selling numerous pieces of forged art to art galleries. However, it is not just a retelling of his forgery; in a dramatic style that maintains the informative and “essay-like” nature of the documentary, Welles delves into the relationship between authorship and forgery. It is a must-watch that is intellectually stimulating yet enjoyable.

Justin’s Pick: The Third Man

I used to consider Orson Welles homework. 

We are all young and stupid once, right? Being the “Genre Kid” I was, more concerned with blood and scares than I was film history, I didn’t much see the point of Welles.

But then I actually saw the thing. Kane, that is. And it’s just…well, it’s everything they say it is, isn’t it? It’s instantly arresting and it’s propulsive and it’s FUNNY as hell. Nobody ever talks enough about how funny Citizen Kane is, do they? And the guy at the center. He’s everything they said he was too. It definitely shocked the young punk out of me and got me thinking about movies in a broader scope than I had before then.

That scope just widened once I bought my first round of Criterions. Amongst them being Carol Reed’s immensely entertaining The Third Man. This was a movie I had heard some of the TCM hosts talk about and even screen a few times during the heyday of that cable channel’s dominance over repertory screenings. And though much of that first round was too horror-based, The Third Man immediately stood out among them. Simply by being so goddamn COOL.

A sumptuous slice of post-WWII noir, The Third Man barely even features Welles but his presence rumbles through the whole of its story. A down-on-his-luck pulp writer (an adorably hang-dog Joseph Cotton) is summoned to Vienna by a former friend; the mercurial Harry Lime, the second of two iconic roles for Welles, even this early in his career. He is dangling a business deal before the broke author of “cheap novelettes” Holly Martins and, like always, Holly comes running to the beck and call of his former drinking buddy. Thing is, once Holly gets there, Lime is dead in the street, and basically everyone in Vienna, meaning the British, the Germans, AND Austrians (all themselves adjusting to their new tenuous peace accords) wants to know why.

By now I’m sure you’ve read about this film’s twisty delights, but to actually SEE them unfolding in front of you, in all of Reed’s plaintively pointedly directed glory is another matter entirely. On top of a score that will spring with you for days after and a script, co-written by pulp legend Graham Greene, that will haunt you, beautifully, for days longer still. It’s just a top to bottom gorgeous experience, packed into a disc set that offers up a whole other slew of delights. It just felt like an entire course on film and pulp history in one immensely fascinating package. 

Unfortunately, The Third Man Criterion is often hard to find now. Criterion has thankfully made the set available on Blu-ray as well, but even that edition doesn’t stay on the shelves too long. The film itself has also been made more widely available, either on streaming platforms or in digital editions. Marking a decided change from the days when I would have to anxiously await the next time Robert Osborne talked about it (and I could maybe TAPE it)! But I will always treasure my own personal copy because it showed me that I could see, and appreciate, more than just what I was willing to. That just because something was old didn’t mean that it wasn’t worth appreciating. Not too bad for some “cheap novelettes”, right? They are much more fun than any homework.