Friday, July 26, 2013

Six Reasons why 'The Conjuring' is a Wonderfully Scary Frightfest

'The Conjuring' is based on not just one, but two true stories. It follows the ghost hunting husband and wife team, the Warrens, and the Perrons, a large family of seven that move into a haunted house. There are so many things in the movie that make it good, so it was a bit hard, but I did manage to figure out the six main things that make this ghost movie so good, and so scary.

6. The Doll Annabelle

The doll Annabelle was based on the possessed Raggedy Ann doll of the same name that has been featured in several ghost TV shows over the years.

The Warrens are a real ghost hunting couple who encountered the doll and locked her up in a case, similar to the one that Annabelle is kept in the movie.

The Warrens worked closely with the producers, which I feel only helped enhance the movie and make it all the more terrifying because it felt so real. Of course, most of the events in the film are incredibly embellished, but the way that they are made larger than life is subtle, and when things really get out of hand during the climax of the movie, everything that happens makes perfect sense.

5. The Characters

"The Conjuring" is old school ghost hunters at its best, and was filmed in the same vein as "The Changeling," and "The Awakening," where a haunted building is one of the main characters of the movie.

The movie slowly, and cleverly builds the tension, to the point where audience members are pinned to their seats, staring at the screen in terror as events unfold. This slow burn ghost movie does it right. It sets up the main characters, makes them very sympathetic people that you'd expect to meet in real life, and then throws them through an emotion and at times physical wringer as the ghost tears down their defenses one by one.

The ghost hunting duo are based on the real life husband and wife team, The Warrens. Their relationship is built on faith and love, and not in a cheesy, forced way.

The same thing goes for the poor victims of the haunted house, the Perrons. The five girls act the way that you'd expect sisters to be, and even their parents are believable.

"The Conjuring" avoids the cliche of the father being the one possessed by the evil of the home, and makes him a loving protector of his family- which is a refreshing change of pace from haunted house movies that take their cues from "The Amityville Horror" and turn the father into a vessel of rage and violence.

The thing that I liked the most was the fact that the movie cleverly misdirects your perceptions of the characters; the ones that you think are going to be the main victim of the ghost, aren't the ones that are the most affected by it, and that makes for one heck of a scary surprise at the end of the film.

4. Ghost Story Elements

There are several instances in "The Conjuring" that reminded me of ghost stories told around the campfire. A lot of thought was put into the script by the writers, and it's clear that they did thorough research of the source material prior to writing the screenplay.

The most interesting ghost story elements is the haunted music box, complete with its creepy peeping clown, and a swirled mirror (an embellishment that appears to be a signature visual theme of James Wan) that spins while the music plays. When it stops, you can see a ghost standing in the mirror behind you.

The music that the box plays is disjointed, the rhythm is syncopated, and unsettling, with unnatural pauses in the melody. The rhythm of the song creates tension, and really gets you ready to jump at any moment, making you believe that the ghost will pop up while it is still playing, but it doesn't. And that is one thing that the movie does right.

Another ghost story element in "The Conjuring" is the haunted hanging tree, a common trope of ghost stories, where one of the ghosts killed herself.

Then there is a ghost of a maid that committed suicide. She appears to one of the victims during the Warren's investigation and says, something along the lines of "Look what she did to me!" or "Look at what she made me do!", and manages to scare the crap out of the guy she appears to, and the audience as well.

Another ghost story element is the spooky, dark basement with long discarded items that nobody wants.  It even had those steps without the back riser, where you can reach through from underneath the stairs to grab someone's foot when they are walking down them.

The first house that I lived in had basement stairs like that, and I hated going down them, they freaked me out, and there they were, in a scary ghost movie. Thanks a lot James Wan.

The last important ghost story element are the clocks. The clocks in the haunted house stop at the same time every day after the family moves into the haunted house. Ghost stories that feature this element often have the clocks stopping in the middle of the night, around 3:00 am. In the case of "The Conjuring" it's 3:07 am.

Thanks to the director's clever, and subtle use of these ghost story elements, the audience's suspension of disbelief is very rarely shattered during the movie.

3. Staring into Darkness

There are multiple scenes in the movie where both the characters, and the audience, find themselves staring into the darkness, trying to see what menacing, evil presence lurking within. The clever use of light and, more importantly, darkness, creates a wonderful tale of suspense and terror. The ghosts are left mostly in the shadows, and are only shown out of focus in the background of a shot.

The inability of the audience to see what is actually haunting the Perrons allows us to use our imaginations, which makes a scene a heck of a lot more scarier than if everything was shown to us. Many ghost movies don't get this part right. They show too much, too soon, and this ruins whatever scares it is attempting to create. Fortunately for us, "The Conjuring" doesn't fall into that trap.

2. The Set Pieces

The Perron's House

The Perron's house has a menacing feel from the moment they open the front door and movie in. It is full of wide open doorways, dark colors, and blind corners.

The basement is creepy, with several pieces of furniture covered in white sheets that are draped in such a way that they look like they are hiding the silhouettes of people. While it doesn't have a face on it, like the Amityville Horror house, the Perron's house still looks like it is watching, and waiting for its next victim to arrive.

The Hanging Tree

The hanging tree on the property is a dead, menacing presence that looms in the distance. The lake that it sits by is still, and stagnant looking. Water is thought by many to be a conduit for the dead, so it's no wonder that the lake looks like there is nothing living in it. That was done on purpose to add another layer of foreboding dread to the movie.

The Haunted Items Museum

The haunted items museum in the Warren's warm looking home is organized evil. From the arrangement of the items, to its focal point- Annabelle's locked glass display case- we can tell that all of the things that are stored there, no matter how mundane looking, are dangerous items that inhabit menacing, and often deadly spirits.

1. Less is More, Especially for Exorcisms

When the demonic ghost, or demon ghost, or evil ghost (take your pick) possesses one of the main characters, the Warrens are forced to do an emergency exorcism to save the possessed person's life.

The possessed victim attacks two of the children, and the other characters rush to save them. Once they wrestle the girls away, the victim is covered in a blanket (one of the blankets that has been draped over the furniture in the basement for the entire movie) and tied to a chair. You can't see the possessed person's face. This is done on purpose. When the evil entity possessing them is ordered to reveal itself, the sheet tears open and you can see only one half of their face. By not fully revealing the body of the possessed during the exorcism, your mind is allowed to conjure an image of what is happening to them, while you are assaulted by terrifying sounds and the pained screams of the innocent victim. This makes the exorcism scene absolutely bone chilling.

The entire movie holds the premise that less is more and that is what makes it an effective, and terrifying ghost film.

I also think that it's important to note that "The Conjuring" is rated R and yet, there is no foul language, no excessive gore or bloodshed. There isn't even any torture porn, even though the director James Wan is known for using them in his Saw movies, (you know, the franchise that made him famous in the horror movie world). Much like "Don't be Afraid of the Dark," the movie is rated R because it's so scary.

If you like subtle, realistic ghost movies that will creep under your skin and scare you half to death, you'll love "The Conjuring."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Top 13 Tiny Terror Horror Films

There's just something about diminutive monsters that go for the feet first. From the undead Gage in "Pet Sematary" to the tiny creatures from "The Gate," they all strike a chord of terror in us that is so primal that it makes us pull up our feet and sit on them while we watch the movie.

Here's my list of the top 13 scariest tiny terrors in horror films.

13. Ghoulies 

"Ghoulies" is a campy horror film in which demonic tiny terrors are summoned during a magic ritual. I'll warn you, the acting is pretty bad, but the monsters make it worth it.

12. Critters

"Critters" is about a monstrous alien species that lands on Earth and proceeds to terrorize a family living in rural American. This was one of those horror movies that I saw when I was a little kid that scared the bejeezus out of me. There's just something about unstoppable eating machines that are nothing but teeth and stomachs that is just creepy. I guess that's why people don't like sharks.

11. Subspecies

"Subspecies" is a cult classic by Full Moon Entertainment. It's about an evil vampire who sends out his little minions, or ghouls, to kidnap people for him to eat, or seduce and then turn into other vampires. Either way,  vampire Radu Vladislas won't stop until he gets his girl. The little creatures in this movie don't speak, but their presence is so important that they became the iconic monsters of the series.

10. The Gate

"The Gate" uses the premise that playing a record backwards will allow you to hear the band speaking Satan rituals. In this case, it opens a gateway to hell, and little demons soon crawl out of it and invade a kid's home.

This is one of those classic 80s horror films that actually had child actors playing the part of kids. I know, it's crazy, isn't it?

9. Gremlins 

Three simple rules, and yet, Billy Pelzer can't manage to follow a single one of them. "Gremlins" is quite possibly the best movie that Joe Dante has ever directed. It is a horror comedy that manages to be equally scary and funny at the same time, and it has a Mogwai in it, so you know that it has to be good.

8. The Hand (1981)

"The Hand" is both a tiny terror film and a psychological horror film all wrapped up into one neat package. Is Jon Landsdale losing his mind, or has his severed hand become a reanimated, unstoppable killing machine?

"The Hand" was directed by Oliver Stone and stars Michael Caine. It is based on "The Lizard's Tail" by Marc Brandell and is about a comic book artist who loses his hand in a terrible car accident. The hand takes on a life of its own, and soon begins to terrorize the people that are making Jon's life a living hell.

7. Cat's Eye (1985)

"Cat's Eye" is an anthology based on the stories of Stephen King. In this horror movie, the tiny terror is an evil troll.

The last story of the anthology, "General" is named after the main character, which happens to be a cat. The evil troll wants to suck out the soul of General's owner, a little girl played by Drew Berrymore.

6. Aliens

"Aliens" is one of my favorite Sci-Fi horror films. While it does have a large adult sized alien at the end, there's a good number of scenes in it that star the FACE HUGGER skittering around and wreaking havok. Because it's so creepy to me, I have included it in this list.

The tiny terror of  "Aliens" is the face hugger.

5. Puppet Master

"Puppet Master" features killer puppets that have been animated by dark magic. They are attempting to get revenge for the death of their creator, Toulon.  When a group of psychics meets up in a hotel where the puppets were hidden, all hell breaks loose as the puppets start to kill them off, one by one.

4. Pet Sematary

Quite possibly the most depressing and terrifying movie I have ever seen, "Pet Sematary" has one of the most memorable tiny terrors in film history. The Creeds move into a new home, and soon learn that an ancient Indian burial ground lies behind their property. When tragedy strikes the family, they soon learn of the burial ground's evil powers. Remember, sometimes, dead is better.

"Pet Sematary" has two tiny terrors in it, the resurrected cat Church, and the evil undead Gage.

3. Child's Play

"Child's Play" is about a killer who uses a voodoo spell to send his soul into the body of a toy. When Charles Lee Ray finds a gullible kid to help him, he goes on a killing spree and attempts to transfer his soul to a living, breathing body.

Chucky is the epitome of creepy dolls. This movie came out when electronic talking toys like Teddy Ruxpin were popular. Chucky became the icon of nightmarish children's toys, and remains as one of the scariest tiny terrors in horror films to date.

2. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" was one of the most underrated horror films of 2010. It features tiny evil fairies that are trying to kidnap a young girl and turn her into one of them.

Sally is sent by her mother to go live with her father when he purchases a large mansion that he intends to fix up and sell in order to make money. She soon finds that she is not alone in the house, and that the little people that live in the walls of the home aren't as friendly as they appear to be.

These faeries are the stuff of nightmares.

1. Trilogy of Terror

"Trilogy of Terror" has one of the scariest tiny terrors ever to appear on film, the Zuni Fetish Warrior doll. The third story of the anthology "Amelia" features Karen Black as a woman who receives a strange gift in the mail and unknowingly unleashes a monster in her apartment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Four Things that Capcom and EA can learn from the Success of 'Slender: 8 Pages'

Dear Capcom and EA, guess what?

You can make a scary survival horror game that is popular and scary by scaling back the encounters, removing the ammo and guns, and focusing on the environment and puzzles-- something Capcom used to do very well and should return to in the Resident Evil Series, and something that EA's "Deadspace" did quite well up until the third installment of the series.

OK Capcom, EA, pay attention. I'm going to share a secret with you, it's the winning formula for a horror video game:

Tension + Variability + Vulnerability + Being Alone = Fear

Did you get that? Good. Now here's four reasons why it works.

4. High Tension

Creating and sustaining tension in a horror video game is a somewhat of an art form. Ultimately it is the perceived threat that makes someone experience high tension, which in turn induces fear in the player. 

I first really grasped this concept when I was running a game/adventure of "Dark Matter," which is a d20 Modern RPG Campaign Setting. The adventure is titled, "Exit 23."

In "Exit 23," the player characters are trapped in a truck stop gas station when an unnatural blizzard sets in during the middle of summer. The white out from the blizzard prevented the characters from safely traveling outside. Unfortunately for them, it trapped them in the gas station where there was a hideous monstrosity called a winter demon that was killing people off one by one over the course of the night.

At one point, the player characters had to go and secure the store front, which was entirely made out of plate glass.The wind was howling outside, the creature was on the prowl, and they were scared beep-less as they went into the room.  I sat there patiently as the players carefully guided their characters around the store, avoiding being directly in front of the window until the very last moment because they believed that the winter demon was going to ambush them when they walked by it.

When something fell in the room, the players had their characters run to safety, upon which time the players let go of the breaths they were holding.

They were scared, and yet all they were doing was investigating a room. There was no attack, no monster, no scene of carnage, and yet it was a moment of high tension for the players.

The winter demon never was going to attack them in that room, but they BELIEVED that it was going to be there and that it was going to rip them to shreds with it's razor sharp claws. It was the potential threat of the encounter that created tension and fear in the players.

It's this type of fear inducing high tension that the video game 'Slender' really managed to create with it's heartbeat like minimalist score that played while you hunt for the eight pages that hint at what is stalking you in the woods. That, combined with the fact that your eyes play tricks on you and after a while, the trees in the background look like Slenderman, and you start jumping at every little shadow that plays in the beam of your dying flashlight.

3. Variability

Tension is also created when there is the possibility of running into Slender man, which is a random encounter  that is constantly changing during game play. You never run into Slenderman in the same place more than once. This variability makes people nervous and jumpy.

Being able to create random events where Slender man may or may not appear is how the game keeps players on their toes, and raises their heart rates. It makes them on edge, it makes them FEEL FEAR and jump at anything that resembles the entity, such as trees or shadows. By establishing a heightened state of fear in the player, every little thing becomes a sign that the monster is stalking you, and every little sound could be Slender man, standing right behind you.

By creating random times and places where Slender man appears in the game, and having him occasionally teleport to be directly behind a player so that when they turn around he's right there and it's game over, the game created a deep unsettling sense of paranoia in the player that left a lot of people jumping at shadows while playing it. This sense of fear and tension caused by variability goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of isolation and vulnerability.

2. Vulnerability

It's not the amount of monsters you throw at a player. It's not the size of the monster that is scary. It's not making them bullet sinks that barely even react when they are shot that makes them scary. It's not awesome looking graphics that makes a video game scary. It's the perceived THREAT of a single entity that creates the most fear in players. 

How does one establish that something is a threat? By making people feel vulnerable.

This is done by taking away the awesome guns and the unlimited ammo and the ability to being able to play an √úbermensch super soldier character. Take away the awesome armor. Take away the ability to shrug off the weight of one thousand corpses. Take all of it away and give them nothing but a flashlight or a Zippo lighter and a dinky pocket knife.

Give players nothing but simple things that they could find in their own homes. Hell, just give them a rock and some duct tape.

The point is, the less prepared and armed a character is for the encounter with the monster, the more vulnerable the player feels, and it's this sense of vulnerability that made survival horror games so scary in the first place.

Make people play as someone who is as weak and vulnerable as they are, make them play a character that represents the common man, such as Harry Mason in "Silent Hill", or make them play as themselves, as "Slender" does.

Then, and only then, will you be able to scare the bejeezus out of someone with your video game. 

1. Being Alone is the Scariest Part

Encountering a single monster is scarier than having hordes of them thrown at you. But, it's the absence of people that is even scarier. Fear of isolation, of being alone, is a common one, so exploit it to the best of your ability.

One of the best ways to make the player feel alone and isolated is to allow them to explore an abandoned landscape.

Exploration is a Key part of Survival Horror. All of the best horror games, the scariest ones, allow a player to explore a setting to try to uncover clues about what is happening. The first three games of the "Silent Hill" series did this exceptionally well by allowing you to wander through the fog veiled town to search for items and information, while being chased by one to two monsters at a time, with the random trio of monsters occurring only occasionally. There were a few people to run into in these games, but they were few and far between, and they were trapped in the evil town as well.

"Slender" establishes the fact that you are alone in the woods with the sounds of your own feet crunching through the leaves on the forest floor, accompanied by the sounds of crickets, and the beating heart in the score, which your mind interprets as the sound of your own heart beating, which in turn raises your heart rate, and increases the fear that you feel.

There isn't a soul to be found. You are alone, in the dark woods, with an enigmatic monster man lurking in the shadows, following you as you pick up the clues in the form of eight pages. Of course, collecting all of the clues in "Slender" is how you win the game. It's a simple video game goal, and yet, it's the most terrifying to complete.

If Capcom and EA can follow the winning formula of a scary horror video game, then and only then will they make a new game that manages to scare people, which will in turn allow them to sell more games, and quite possibly create a successful new entry to their respective game franchises. If not, well, we'll have more disasters like "Resident Evil 6" and "Dead Space 3" on our hands. And that would make me, and a heck of a lot of other horror gamers very, very sad indeed.

For more information about what makes horror video games so scary, check out "Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players" by Gamasutra's Joel Windels. It's really fascinating stuff.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Top 3 Children's Horror Book Series that I Loved as a Kid

Long before I loved horror movies, I loved reading horror novels.

I thought that I would start with a list of the top three horror book series that scared the crap out of me when I was a little kid, and I loved it.

3. Point Horror

Point Horror is the Young Adult horror book series that launched R.L. Stine's career. His book, "Blind Date" was the book that also helped make the series popular. Other notable authors that contributed to this horror book series include Christopher Pike with "Collect Call,"  A. Bates who wrote "Party Line," and "Richie Tankersley Cusick, who wrote the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" book series and "Trick or Treat."

My two favorite books from the Point Horror series includes "Call Waiting" by R.L. Stine and "April Fools" by Richie Tankersly Cusick.

2. Bunnicula

"Bunnicula" is a children's book series by James and Deborah Howe. The stories are told from the perspectives of the Monroe family's pets, Harold the dog and Chester, the cat. If you can't guess, Harold is the more rational one and Chester is a paranoid scaredy cat. When their owners welcome a new strangely colored bunny with white fur and black patch on it that looks like a cape, strange things start to happen to the vegetables in the home. Turns out that Bunnicula is a vampire bunny who sucks the juice out of veggies.

What I really loved about this series is that there was a spooky mystery to be solved by Harold and Chester, with the usual hijinks ensuing that you would assume a cat and a dog to get involved with when attempting to prove that a pet rabbit is a vampire.

This is one of my most cherished children's book series and just writing about it is a huge nostalgia bomb for me. I read the first three books of the series, "Bunnicula," "Howliday Inn,"  and "The Celery Stalks at Midnight," so many times that the book coves became severely bent and worn. This is a condition that I call well loved, my S.O. Shane Strange calls it book murder. He's probably right.

1. Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark

When I was in fourth grade, I was introduced to "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" by Alvin Schwartz. The book was the first in a series of anthologies. The anthologies consisted of urban legends and ghost stories from traditional folk lore that were collected by Alvin Schwartz and then retold for his books. There were three books in total in the series, which were then collected into one volume a little later on.

The stories that I liked the most from the first volume are "The Viper," "The Big Toe," "The Bride," and "The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers," with the latter two being the scariest stories in the book.

Most of the stories themselves were a little goofy and mostly of the "spooky" variety. It was the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that were the real scary parts of the books.

This one in particular I found to be as creepy as hell when I was a little kid.

Unfortunately, a few years ago they decided to change the art in the books when they were up for a reprint by Harper Collins, so if you have any copies of the originals, hold onto them, as they're worth a lot more to collectors nowadays than they used to be.

I wonder if the people who decided to change the art because it was "too scary" were also the same people who decided to put the parental warning on the DVDs of the original episodes of "Sesame Street?"