All that stands between them and the unknown is a red door. It is the sole entry point to a house isolated in in the wilderness, presided over by a man obligated to protect his family with obsessive conviction. What he – and therefore the others – fear beyond the boarded windows is referenced in whispers but never certainties, creating ambiguity when the narrative restricts their movements to a small space beyond the danger. Then, just as they lay to rest their grandfather after he contracts what appears to be a contagious disease, a stranger emerges in the darkness. Who is he? What is his agenda? How did he find their home, so far off the beaten path? A stand-off ensues, leading to an unnerving test that might reveal a critical detail – namely whether he, too, is afflicted with the sickness they dread. “It Comes at Night,” one of the more profound of recent horror films, contemplates a conclusion only out of necessity; it is about how fears blind us to the truth, the lengths we go to protect those we love and how compassion becomes lost when the horrors of a silent world lead us astray from the value of human grace.
Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” breathes the misery of its characters with the relentlessness of a voyeuristic conviction, invariably setting the audience up for a rather complex moral test: can you defend any film, artistic or not, that extends no restraint in the violence imposed on the living? Fifteen years after it pierced the membrane of our comforts, we remain distant from the possibility of consensus. Not one to shy away from the more volatile experiments of the modern cinema, I first shared in that journey with a handful of film enthusiasts who, too, could not initially process what they had seen. But in those early days of the movie’s notoriety I was also rattled by another noteworthy detail: a strange, throbbing murmur of a synth that loops over the critical second scene, during which a man’s skull is destroyed with a fire extinguisher. Is he the depraved individual responsible for the rape of another earlier that night? Is his victim now in a coma because of his deplorable actions? Do the responses of her friend and lover become necessary as vigilante impulses? Somehow my attempt to reason with the material was blurred further by this single chord of noise underlining the violence; it has a grizzly, chilling effect on the moment that haunts me even now, long after the senses have reconciled the horror and my mind searches for a thesis.
Of a plethora of tenacious relics that persist with some level of notoriety in the dead teenager formula, few have been as puzzling (or as maddening) as Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp.” Cut from the same blood-soaked cloth that gave birth to the “Friday the 13th” and “Prom Night” franchises, here was a picture heralded in the margins of filmgoing as an audacious blend of macabre visuals and social underpinnings, inevitably casting it in a light that far exceeded the expectations of its class. Others were content to regard it as harmless (if violent) fun, and those sorts might have been the first to develop long-term hindsight; better films would eventually come along to inform their palettes and diminish the lesser pleasures. But like an open wound with a relentless sting we are forced to consider this thing in the sweep of horror film history even now, despite that far more ambitious movies have drifted deeply into the annals of cinematic myth and legend. Its strange endurance, at best, emphasizes the dichotomous standards of the populists, who usually sneer in protest at a standard that freely robs the ideas of the masters while displacing their tonal conviction.
One of the most exhausted devices of supernatural horror is a creepy-looking doll with murderous tendencies wreaking havoc on its owners. Long before Chucky there was a homicidal clown in “Poltergeist,” and before that was Talking Tina, one of the prominent menaces of “The Twilight Zone” – their commonality was that the victims always were oblivious to dangers until far too late, perhaps because no one involved could really believe a small toy had the capability of causing great harm to others. That is the first mistake of the characters in “Annabelle,” who are given enough warning signs to facilitate the dread: the emphasized arrival of said doll, its strange facial expression, an ambush by satanic cultists who die with it in their possession (one of them bleeds into the doll’s eyes), creepy noises from around corners, and rocking chairs that come alive by themselves even when no one is nearby. Then there is a moment where the husband, granting suspicion to his paranoid wife, throws the doll away in a garbage can. Shouldn’t it amount to something startling, then, when it then appears packed away in a box, as if no such decision transpired? If there were a persistent sentiment amongst the demonic spirits that inhabit them, it’s that you always have a chance to endure if you find yourself in the home of flyweight suburbanites with only a dozen functioning brain cells between them.