Posts Tagged ‘Gothic horror’

Saturday night usually means popcorn and a movie for me. This evening I decided to check out the new Netflix movie Malevolent. I figured it would be a good way to round out a day busy with cleaning, grocery shopping, home decor projects, and sacrificing teenagers* to an ancient deity so I could set in motion a series of terrifying events unlike the world has ever seen before this October.

Malevolent is set in 1986 Scotland and follows Angela, a university student who, along with her brother, fakes being a medium in order to make money for her brother’s debts. When they get called to an old manor that was the sight of several grisly murders however, they start finding that the afterlife they’d conned people over is very much alive, and can be very…well, malevolent.

This film’s got a decent, if rather overcrowded, first half. It sets up Angela’s worries about her life and her mental health, due to her mother committing suicide. It shows her brother Jackson as an opportunistic asshole who’s willing to take advantage of anyone just to pay off his loan sharks. And it sets up a decent Gothic location for the main action of the film. There’s also some good jump scares and a creepy atmosphere at times during this half. The best part is probably during the initial walkthrough of the house, when Angela is starting to realize this house may really be haunted. It’s visually powerful and puts you on edge.

However, the second half has a lot of problems. For one thing, it feels pretty rushed. Usually there’s a slow build up to the climax, but in this film it just goes from zero to sixty, and not in a good way. If they maybe added twenty minutes to half an hour more, I wouldn’t feel so whiplashed. Also, the tone during the second half is a little inconsistent. Like it can’t decide if it wants to be a Gothic ghost story or a thriller story about serial killers. Along with a twist introduced in the last twenty minutes that seems more shoved in than clever, it just takes me really out of the film.

Also, why was this film set in the 1980s? I know that’s like the popular trend these days, to put your story in the 1980s, but there’s no reason at all to do it in this film like in Stranger Things or another 80s-set show or movie. You could do this in the present, and you’d get the same effect. In fact, I think it might be better if it were set in the present. It would feel less gimmicky if they used GoPros instead of big, bulky video cameras.

Overall, Malevolent can’t capitalize on the interesting setup it promises. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m going to give this film a 2.5. Frankly Followers of Fear, there are better Netflix horror films to peruse. I suggest you go and find some if you want some pleasant nightmares.

*Don’t worry, the teenagers were unharmed. The sacrifices were symbolic. The deity, however, was very much real. I’ve got a bandage on my left thumb as proof.

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Funny story: yesterday at work I told a coworker what the film was about, as she hadn’t heard of it before. When she heard the plot, she said, “That sounds creepy!” I told her that it was based on a true story. She looked at me in all seriousness and said, “Really?” I told her no, and we both laughed that for a hot second, she believed it. She was the only person I did that bit on yesterday who fell for it, but it was worth it.

Hell Fest follows Natalie, a college student who goes with her friends and a potential boyfriend to HellF est, a traveling horror-themed amusement park complete with scary mazes, rides, actors in scary costumes, and grotesque toys. Basically a traveling Disneyland for horror fans, and I so wish that was a real thing so I could go to it! Unfortunately, there’s a masked serial killer in the park, and he sets his sights on Natalie, stalking her around the park. But when everything is meant to scare you, where is the line between what’s for fun and what’s all too real.

So, the story is pretty straightforward for a slasher film of this type. You got a bunch of one-trait characters who are out for a night of fun, there’s a killer out there stalking them. Surprisingly, the level of blood and gore is pretty tame for this sort of movie, and the characters don’t do as much dumb stuff as they might have done if this movie had been made in the 80s or 90s. My favorite character had to have been Taylor, played by the incomparable Bex Taylor-Klaus of the Scream TV series (if there’s a horror movie with her in it, there’s a good chance I will see it). Taylor was pretty much an exaggerated, female version of me: horror-obsessed, very funny, plenty of social awkwardness to go around. I honestly would love to hang out with this character.

The best thing with this movie is definitely the costumes. Not just the killer’s mask, which is effective in a minimalist way, but the costumes of Hell Fest’s “actors:” the people hired to wear creepy costumes and go around scaring people. You could see how much work they put into each individual outfit to make them scary, or barf out slime, or whatever floats your fancy. They must have had costumers who worked in actual haunted attractions work for this movie, they’re that good.

Sadly, Hell Fest does have a few problems. For one thing, while the sets are creative and do look like they belong to an actual horror Disneyland called Hell Fest, they don’t seem to take it far enough. When you hear Hell Fest, you think something like the Nine Circles of Hell out of Dante’s Inferno, mixed with every Gothic story ever and every season of American Horror Story ramped up to eleven. The sets should make fear leap off the screen, and there’s none of this. Most of the mazes do look rather creepy, but others just have too much neon and not enough scary stuff. The Hell-themed maze in particular was disappointing, as it’s supposed to be “the scariest maze in the park.” And in-between the mazes, you might as well just be in a state fairground or at a national park trail done up for October.

I don’t know, maybe it’s the fact that it’s on a screen and I’m not there in person that’s the problem, but it’s not what I’d expect of a movie called Hell Fest.

Another issue is that for the first third of the film, it’s just not that scary. Even once you get to Hell Fest, it’s more colorful than terrifying. After the first maze or so, a horror movie atmosphere does crop up, complete with tense sequences and a few decent jump scares, but it’s not as strong as it could be. And in a film about a horror theme park, that’s just not good enough.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Hell Fest a 3 out of 5. It’s a movie that works on paper, and it has colorful costumes and a few good sets, but leaves much to be desired.

Still, I’d take Hell Fest over the Friday the 13th remake any day. At least it remembered to be a horror film, rather than a raunchy comedy that Jason happened to stumble into. That’s right, I found a way to trash that shit film out of Michael Bay’s ass again! And I won’t stop until I either get a better or a worse Friday the 13th film.

The other day, I was talking with someone about what sort of tattoo I’d get if I were the type to get one.* This is a topic I’ve thought of a lot in my twenty-five years, and I think I’ve figured out what I would get. As I explained to my friend, it would be a representation of the horror genre, how the various causes of horror in fiction–like demonic entities, the prospect of death, and of course human beings, among others–have a detrimental effect on us. “It’s corruption of the innocent,” I explained. “The very essence of horror.”

And then I realized something: corruption of the innocence is an essential part, if not the essence, of horror. And it can be found in every horror story, if you think about it. I knew it was part of Gothic horror, as I mentioned it in my post about what makes Gothic horror. But beyond that subgenre? Hadn’t even considered it.

I could have hit myself for not realizing that sooner. It was staring me right in the face, goddammit!

As I said above, I mentioned how corruption of the innocent is an element of Gothic fiction, and we see this in Gothic stories like The Shining. Danny sees the world go from a mostly-nice place where bad luck sometimes causes disaster for good people to a dark place where entities like The Overlook exist and kill people or drive them mad. Said entity also tries to corrupt Danny’s shine, to make that beautiful psychic power part of its own dark self.

Innocence corrupted.

However, this concept is found in other horror stories. HP Lovecraft incorporated it into his work quite often. In The Call of Cthulhu, his most famous work, the narrator starts out as being very sure that the world is a concrete place of science and rationality. However, after going through his late uncle’s effects, he realizes that there’s something awful in this world, a worldwide cult devoted to the bloody worship of an awful god that will one day rise to retake the Earth. And not only did this cult kill the narrator’s uncle, its agents will likely kill the narrator, driven close to madness with fear, before long.

Innocence corrupted.

This story is a great example of corruption of the innocent at work without being part of the Gothic genre.

And sometimes the innocence being ruined here isn’t your traditional childlike innocence. Sometimes it’s as simple as just having your worldview changed. Two early Stephen King stories, “The Mangler” and “Battleground,” revolve around hardened men discovering the world can involve the supernatural or just plain weird (in this case, a possessed dry-cleaning machine and toy soldiers that come to life to kill you). As I said, nothing dramatic. Just a shift in viewpoint.

Innocence corrupted.

Even when it’s so ubiquitous though, I don’t think corruption of the innocent is the essence of horror, as I characterized above. Or at least, the only essence of horror. After all, we can’t forget about fear, which is what horror plays on and seeks to create. Without that fear, you just don’t have a good horror story. Perhaps then, like fear or a powerful antagonist, corruption of the innocent is something necessary to writing horror. Without it, the genre would be missing something that cannot be done without.

So while not exactly the full essence of horror, corruption of the innocent is important to the genre. You could even say it’s wrapped up in the essence of horror. And I’m glad I finally realized after such a long time that it was.

Hopefully it makes writing decent horror stories easier.

What do you think of corruption of the innocent as part of horror? Do you think I’m onto something?

Do you think I should get a tattoo? Would you like to see this design of mine realized? Do you know how any artists who could help me create it?

*For the record, I’m tempted, but my religious beliefs aren’t fond of me getting one. And I’m not sure I want something so permanent on my body, anyway. Especially if I have to pay a ton of money for what I’m looking for. Still fun to think about, though.

Also, I want it on my back. Best place to get it, in my personal opinion.

Hill House is a great example of Gothic fiction and a Gothic location.

You’ve probably heard someone describe a work of fiction as being “a very Gothic work,” or describing a place they visited as “having a Gothic feel” (which now that I think about it, could be said of The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast). But what actually is “Gothic horror” or “Gothic fiction?” And why does it still appeal to us after more than two-hundred and fifty years?

Surprisingly, Gothic fiction has very little to do with Gothic architecture or with Goth fashion and music (for more on that relationship, check out this brief YouTube video). And while most of the genre do take place in haunted houses, not all haunted house stories are Gothic, or vice versa. As this very helpful Tor.com article points out, “Some genres build the house. Others come along and decorate it. Gothic horror is a very decorative genre.”

So what is Gothic fiction? Well, to be honest, it’s a genre that arose out of another genre that was a response to a popular movement. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment movement emphasized discarding superstition in favor of science and reason. Some artists didn’t care for this philosophy and turned to Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the self, as well as a veneration of the past, nature, and in some cases the supernatural. Gothic arose out of Romanticism, with artists and authors combining elements of the latter with horror, death and the supernatural, starting with The Castle of Otranto in 1764 by Horace Walpole, and followed by the works of Poe, Mary Shelley, Byron, and many others.

To put it simply, Gothic fiction could be considered the love-child of 18th and 19th century Romance stories and horror stories.

But that’s how Gothic fiction came to be. How do we identify it? Well, the horror novel Kill Creek by Scott Thomas (which I highly recommend), itself a Gothic novel, gives a great run-down of some of the common elements of the genre (I hope Mr. Thomas doesn’t mind me using them):

  • Emanation from a single location. The source of the evil is often a single location, usually a house. A great example of this is The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It is the book’s main location, and it is the source of the evil in the story.
  • A sense of forbidden history. There’s a dark history associated with the location or something related to it. Again, a great example is The Overlook, which has been the setting for murders, suicides, and all sorts of horrid deaths and events, all of which have been swept under the rug for the sake of the hotel’s reputation, and later gets drudged up by Jack (and the hotel).
  • An atmosphere of decay or ruin. Things are rotting or falling apart, or seems to be anyway. It’s in the very air, almost. And it doesn’t have to be physical; it can be mental too. Just look at Jack’s mental state as The Shining progresses, if you need an example.
  • Corruption of the innocent. This one speaks for itself. The evil wants to destroy good and innocence and replace it with evil. Dracula, a great example of Gothic fiction, has the titular character turning good and innocent people into bloodsucking vampires. This is corruption of the innocent in its best example, and why vampire fiction is often grouped with Gothic fiction (did you expect another Shining reference?).

Dracula is another great example of Gothic literature, even if it’s not confined to a single location.

But those features aren’t universal among Gothic stories. They’re common features, but not there in every one (Dracula doesn’t just kill in one single place, after all). So what else makes a Gothic story? Well, there’s something I’ve noticed about Gothic stories: along with the atmosphere of decay, there’s also a veneration towards the darkness and to beauty. Remember, Gothic fiction rose from Romanticism, which venerates nature, emotion and beauty. So while we’re feeling an atmosphere of terror, there’s also this sense that the author has a respect and love of the darker elements along with the Romantic ones.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of what constitutes Gothic, and I could go on for days on the subject if you let me. The best summary I can do for this post is to say that Gothic fiction are horror stories with a particular group of tropes, a veneration of darkness and horror, and Romantic appreciation for aesthetic and the fantastic world. And even that feels incomplete.

So what appeals to us about Gothic fiction, and has allowed it to survive and evolve whereas other niche genres like Westerns went out of style in less than sixty years? Well, there’s no easy answer there either. The Tor article says that the rules and expectations of the genre can be learned and make it appealing to readers. I’ve heard some people say good Gothic horror has an atmosphere unlike other genres, and that keeps them coming back. My opinion is that, in addition to those theories, Gothic can evolve because its main tropes are relevant no matter what age we’re in, especially the houses. But on a deeper level than that, most Gothic literature takes the childhood idea of home, a big place we feel safe in, and turns it inside out into a giant house of fear that is still somewhat beautiful and appealing. That is a strange inversion that can be attractive to readers, and may explain why we keep writing and reading Gothic stories over two-hundred and fifty years after Walpole started the genre.

However you define Gothic fiction or whatever its appeal is, there’s no doubt that it is a popular and influential genre that we’ve all experienced at lest once in our lives and remember. And perhaps by understanding it better, we can keep Gothic horror going for many more years to come. And I certainly wouldn’t mind that.

What elements of Gothic fiction did I miss here? What about it appeals to you?

What Gothic stories would you recommend for anyone interested in the genre?

I discovered this novel, which came out on Halloween last year, on Audible as an audio book while looking for my next listen/read. It sounded interesting, and nothing else I was finding in the catalog was really grabbing my attention, so I decided to listen to it. I’m really happy I made the decision to do so: this is probably one of the best scary stories and one of the best novels I’ve come across in a while.

Kill Creek follows four famous horror novelists: Sam McGarver, a writer with a past who’s struggling to start his fifth book; TC Moore, an abrasive novelist who likes to explore the blurring of pain and pleasure in her stories; Daniel Slaughter, a religious man who writes Christian horror fiction aimed at teens; and Sebastian Cole, a veteran horror writer who’s considered the King of Modern Horror. They’re invited to Kill Creek, a house in the middle of rural Kansas that’s considered one of the most haunted houses in America, for a Halloween publicity event. This results in the awakening of a powerful entity, one with plans for the authors. Plans that will not only jeopardize their sanity, but their very lives.

I loved this story. For one thing, the book’s language. Thomas doesn’t spend time floating around with flowery language or writing confusing passages. Every word is there because it’s meant to be, which keeps the reader (or listener) invested in the story. I never once felt lost, wondering what the heck just happened or thinking that this or that word or paragraph was unnecessary. And that also helps create the unsettling atmosphere: when they’re at the house, you feel like you’re there with the characters, and you’re feeling every uneasy feeling they’re feeling. For horror fanatics, that’s a great feeling.

I also like how the story is unpredictable. Plenty of times I was sure that I knew where the story was going to go, only to be proven wrong a chapter later. And I’m the guy who prides himself on being able to predict where movies are going to go couldn’t predict each twist or the change of direction the story goes, so that says something about how well-written and unique this story is. The story itself is even a cool and clever twist on the haunted house trope!

But my favorite part was the main characters. They all felt like real people, and we’re given enough time with each of them to reveal their hidden depths. My favorite character of the bunch was TC Moore. My God, was she entertaining! I always looked forward to the narration switching to her perspective, when she would swear like a sailor and just eviscerate anyone who rubbed her the wrong way (which was everyone). I doubt I’d get along with her if she was a real person, but as a character, you just have to love her (kind of like Sheldon Cooper, but even harder to get along with).

And by the way, I count the house as a character. And it is a freaky character, let’s leave it at that.

On the whole, I only had two real problem with the story: one was there’s a minor character who appeared in the story for maybe two or three pages. Honestly, you could’ve kept them entirely off-stage, mentioned only in flashbacks or in exposition, and I would’ve been fine. They really didn’t add anything when they were in the story. The second is that there’s a scene in the first half of the book that I felt was kind of gratuitous and unnecessary. It could have been left out and the novel would’ve been fine.

Other than that, I absolutely loved the story, and I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Kill Creek by Scott Thomas is a wonderful example of modern Gothic horror. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.5. A great debut novel from an author I hope to read more from in the future. Check it out and get lost in the madness.

And if you get it in audio book, you’re in for a treat. Bernard Setaro Clark is a great narrator who gives each character their own particular sound and whose voice goes great with the book’s language.