Crossfader’s Week of Horror: The Films That Started It All
Director: Mikael Håfström
To be fair, I was surprised to discover that 1408 is generally fondly remembered, but I’m sure almost nobody else is even tangentially thinking of this Stephen King adaptation a decade later. Based on King’s 1999 short story of the same name, 1408 revolves around supernatural skeptic Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who books a stay at the infamously haunted titular room at the Dolphin Hotel, managed by Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), in the hopes of finding inspiration for another book exploring supernatural events. As can be predicted, his former doubts are proven wrong, and he must survive a night in 1408 as he confronts the ghosts of his past. The film is many things: a competent, dark fantasy-indebted horror thriller, a vehicle for commendable performances from Cusack and Jackson, and almost accidentally among the stronger King adaptations. But, most importantly of all, this is the first horror film I ever felt a personal connection with.
Growing up with parents on the stricter side of things, I wasn’t allowed to watch films that were rated R until an embarrassingly late age. Oddly enough, my parents were fine with me reading all of Stephen King’s books at the impressionable age of 12 (how bad can a book be, right?). As such, 1408 was the perfect storm: a PG-13 film I could rent, based on my favorite author at the time, and a horror film to boot. Horror was a foreign concept to me, relegated to memories of glimpsing those scary, B-grade VHS covers I had seen at Blockbuster growing up, movies I was barely allowed to even walk down the aisle to take stock of. Horror was forbidden; horror was dangerous; horror was adult. I remember practically quivering in anticipation as I headed home one day the summer before eighth grade to watch a horror film alone. It took me three hours to finish the movie—having never been exposed to the language of the genre before, I was pants-shittingly terrified at the slightest rise in music or pensive movement on the part of Cusack, pausing, fast-forwarding, rewinding, and start again to avoid falling victim to a jump scare. I spoke about the film in hushed, whispered tones, telling a friend (with equally strict parents) that I rented a horror film and we had to watch it. He was too scared to even attempt.
Watching it now with years of genre allegiance under my belt, it’s actually not too bad in terms of its merits as a movie. It does manage to raise tension without using any gore or violence, and its hallucinogenic imagery is more carefully crafted than it needed to be from a comparatively no-name director. As a horror film, it of course doesn’t pack the same punch as it did in the Summer of ‘07, but watching it brought me right back down memory lane. Three years later I would have my Earth shattered into pieces watching the first Paranormal Activity film in theaters, but 1408 is the first horror film that felt distinctly mine. I spent a sweaty night unable to sleep after watching it, carefully mulling it over in my head. So this was horror, huh, and this is how it could make me feel? Very interesting. I’ve never been the same since. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Director: Tom Holland
Like most people born prior to 2000, Blockbuster played a vital part in shaping one’s movie perception. For me, the terror of Child’s Play and its infamous villain, Chucky, all started with trips to the now sadly defunct movie rental shop. While my mom was picking out any Robin Williams or Tom Hanks vehicle for family movie night, she’d let me roam around. It was fun looking at all the various movie covers and their art, and taking notice of what actors I recognized before looking on the back to find out their names. Each section was a new universe, containing little new worlds of their own that I could potentially be a part of. And the world I was most simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by was the last aisle. I knew I was going to regret even getting to close to that “Horror/Sci-fi” banner that hung above the shelves, but something drew me to it. My mom was pretty lenient about what movies I could watch, so she didn’t stop me from exploring such territory either. A part of me wanted to be scared. No other genre in Blockbuster could do that for me, titillate me in such a way where I was pulled in and pushed out at the same time. I remember having to practically shield my eyes the closer I got; my body knew what was best, but my mind’s curiosity was overwhelming. It was a freakin’ adrenaline rush for a five-year-old. As much as I loved VHS covers, here in the horror section, the last feeling they instilled in me was cheer. Forget about the description blurbs on the back; the visuals were what did it for me and the little carousel with all the classics was quite literally a carousel of horror. ROSEMARY’S BABY wasn’t too bad, as ominous as that black cradle was, and I could tell THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW probably wasn’t seriously scary just by its iconic lip biting; but CHILD’S PLAY and the little red-haired doll, toothy smile and piercing blue eyes in all, that slashed its way through the VHS paperback? Well, that was enough to send me scurrying back to my mom’s side.
My fear of this little fucker was well known in the Funess household, and, to my dismay, my older brother widely exploited it. For some reason my twin sister wasn’t nearly as scared of the killer doll either, and the two would enjoy flashing the cover at my face as some sort of sick, twisted teasing. Alive or not, dolls alone creeped me out. Their lifeless, beady eyes, the uncanny face shape and smiles, and that stringy, dead hair. Why would anyone want to play with that? And at this age, dolls were all the rage for my sister, who I had the (mis)fortune of sharing a room with. She stacked them up in a little huddle on this small wooden bench opposite the beds we slept in. Of course my bed was closer to them, and they would just stare at me. It took me forever to turn my back and go to sleep, with the mere possibility of them animating and attacking me always at the front of my mind. A few years later (maybe 10?), I finally saw CHILD’S PLAY with my brother, and to my surprise, it wasn’t scary, but funny! My brother had tried to tell me this all along, but I figured it was still part of a cruel joke. Yet, I actually enjoyed Chucky’s presence; he had some clever one-liners and seeing him run was hilarious in itself—think live-action Stewie from Family Guy.
I’ve now seen my fair share of CHILD’S PLAY entries, and while none of them are quite as good as the first one, probably because that one leaned more towards actual horror than horror-comedy, It’s fun seeing all the different iterations of the Good Guy doll. However, the two most recent ones (CURSE OF CHUCKY and CULT OF CHUCKY), helmed by the franchise’s loyal creator Don Mancini, have shown an impressive effort in recapturing the initial horror of the first. They also feature Brad Dourif (Chucky’s voice actor for every movie in the franchise) joined by his daughter, Fiona, in the main role, and the result is an awesome father-daughter meta-affair. I think what I admire most, though, is the tight-knit and involved community built around the Chucky mythos; everyone is well aware of what they’re creating and they’re having fun doing it. Even Alex Vincent, the original Andy, pops up as well, further testament to the bonhomie and familial environment fostered on these productions. While it’s certainly far from being a praise-worthy horror franchise, it helped birth my eventual love/obsession for horror movies and will always remain the first one that genuinely scared me by cover alone. And to be honest, what higher compliment could you give a horror film?! [Nick Funess]
Director: Neil Marshall
It wouldn’t be Halloween at Crossfader without Kate waxing poetic about her horror film journey!
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw THE DESCENT, but going off the release date, I was probably 12. I watched it on a bootleg DVD at the house where I worked and built a haunted maze with a bunch of 30-year-olds I was allowed to hang out with for some reason. (I would eventually have my first underage drink of alcohol at this house, but not until I was 18. I’m shocked I didn’t get into more trouble. The power of Catholic guilt!) I don’t remember a whole lot about the film, other than a gruesome scene with a broken leg and the fact that it scared the absolute, ever-loving bejeezus out of me. THE DESCENT is the film that officially put me off horror until the ability to bring my friends to the movies for free motivated me to see THE VISIT 10 years later. I hadn’t watched it since, and my desire to slay this beast inspired the creation of this article.
I drove home last night after another ass-kicking at bar trivia and settled in to watch THE DESCENT at about 10:30pm. I wrapped up in a blanket and turned off all the lights to set the atmosphere. Reflecting on this ritual in the crisp light of day, I think I was trying to set myself up to be scared. I wanted to feel validated, to be really rocked to my core like I was 11 years ago on that sticky pleather couch in the house that smelled like dust and cigarettes. I think deep down I knew I wasn’t going to be scared of it anymore.
As such, it should come as no surprise that THE DESCENT did not send me into the terrified frenzy I experienced as a tween. What did surprise me was how much I genuinely enjoyed this movie with my newfound horror sensibilities. The mere idea of being trapped and lost in a cave two miles beneath the earth is enough to make you feel sick, let alone seeing it depicted on film. It strikes a perfect balance between atmospheric horror and jump scares; the silent moments when the women squeeze through narrow passageways are among the most unsettling and effective, but the eerily quiet build up pays off immeasurably in the action-packed finale. The dark, claustrophobic cinematography builds tension in every scene, accented by bright pops of red and green (‘member THE MATRIX?). It is so delightfully 2006 in its stylization, but never feels dated or lame.
THE DESCENT is also special in that—despite being written and directed by a man—it’s feminist as fuck. Admittedly, the film stumbles a bit in its final minutes when Sarah stabs Juno for sleeping with her dead husband, but even this is so tangential and understated to the actual plot that I’m willing to overlook it. Putting aside all the obvious feminist imagery (caverns, blood, a “rebirth” at the end) I am absolutely in love with how un-sexy this movie is. These women are athletic adventurers who aren’t afraid to get dirty and bloody and get shit done. There’s no nudity, no random sexual encounters, there is literally only one man in the entire film and he dies within the first five minutes. These women love each other and help each other, and even when things get hairy, they never resort to petty sabotage despite the fact that this is literally all Juno’s fault. There’s even a hinted-at lesbian relationship that never becomes the butt of a joke.
This is not a perfect movie, but in the midst of these troubling political times, I’m happy it exists and that I was able to encounter it at a point in my life where I think I really needed to see it. It not only felt empowering to conquer my White Whale horror film—this is a straight-up empowering film. I’m proud to bring my horror journey full-circle and now that I’ve gotten all of this thoughtful introspection out of my system, I look forward to being able to exclusively focus on trash. [Kate Brogden]
Director: Takashi Shimizu
What if I told you that it wasn’t specifically THE GRUDGE that terrified me, but rather everything surrounding the allure of the actual product, most notably the men and women behind DVD distribution, design, and formatting? For further clarification, let me take you back to 2004. I was a wee lad living in Bucharest, Romania—a fourth grade student, to be precise. Anyone who knew me at the time was aware of two things: I loved Jackie Chan and was exceptionally spooked by anything ghoulish or otherwise. So imagine my dismay when I unpacked my recently acquired DVD of THE MEDALLION only to discover that I’d have to endure an entire trailer for THE GRUDGE before reaching the main menu!
And who would blame me? I mean, guys, THE MEDALLION is a pretty lit film. It’s basically 2003’s peer to Eddie Murphy’s I-SPY, starring none other than everyone’s favorite martial artist. It’s about a Hong Kong detective who suffers a fatal accident involving a mysterious medallion and is transformed into an immortal warrior with superhuman powers!!! Alright, you got me, I did copy-paste that logline straight from IMDB, but that’s beside the point. Sure, I don’t remember anything about this movie except the box art—a work of craftsmanship so ineffably early aughts that I cream my pants just thinking about it—but that honestly just speaks to the effect that this film’s distribution had on me. I don’t think it’s out of line to expect a release that is by and large a children’s film to steer clear of anything remotely unsettling, and yet here I was, watching the trailer to what would quickly develop into one of the most impressionable horror films of my life. And that’s saying a lot, because I probably wouldn’t have given a hoot about a phoned in 2000s reboot of a classic Japanese horror film if it wouldn’t have been for Screen Gems’ terrible marketing snafu.
But then again, I don’t know, maybe this wasn’t an accident. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Screen Gems was probing me. A budding film enthusiast with a hankering for trite, Asian-centric cinema. A young boy who grew up on DRAGONBALL Z, only to mature into a Jackie Chan fanboy. Maybe Screen Gems was conducting a genetic modification of sorts. An attempt to rejigger my metabolism so as to turn my fascination with East Asian culture into a carnal lust for yūrei far and wide. And I know what you’re gonna say: “Sergio, you numbskull, why didn’t you just skip the trailer?” Well guess what? I couldn’t! The DVD literally did not let me access the main menu until playing through THE GRUDGE. If that isn’t intentional, I don’t know what is!
Yes, it sounds like a stretch, but believe it or not, THE GRUDGE ended up being one of the first legit horror films that I rented from my local Diverta (the Romanian equivalent to Blockbuster) when I decided to take the plunge into the genre. What once was a fear transitioned into a curiosity, only to become the greatest time-suck of my adult life. Now to call this a cozy ride would be a huge understatement. I was literally shitting bricks during the entirety of THE GRUDGE. But still, nothing scared me quite as much as that trailer did four years prior. You see, I could handle the frightfest once it was tangible. In fact, my preceding viewing of SCARY MOVIE 4 had certainly desensitized me from anything that was going to show up in the film proper.
But, once again, the DVD designers had the drop on me. While THE MEDALLION soiled my pants during its trailers, THE GRUDGE boasted the most unsettling main menu I had ever laid eyes on. A dissonant groaning sound, and a motionless graphic of the film’s box art rumbled through my home theatre (a space my family had recently acquired; the 5.1 surround and enormous plasma screen only heightening the terror of the situation). My best friend, my brother, and I fell to the floor and screamed at that main menu for a solid five minutes. It was the opaque nature of what we were about to embark on that truly petrified me—and, interestingly enough, that main menu was the closest I ever came to reliving the undying dread that would precede my childhood viewing of THE MEDALLION. It primed us so intensely for the ensuing horror film that I’m still recovering from the experience. It was the moment I became a horror fan—the exact instance where my body was rendered numb to all viscera. Martial arts wasn’t going to save me from this one. [Sergio Zaciu]