A Peculiar Q & A

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Instagram (@judeandtheobscure if you aren’t already following my account) with a request for questions. Without further ado, here is my very first Q & A!

Anonymous questions:

“What is your favorite [sic] horror film? You can give one before 2000 and one after 2000 if that’s easier.”

Ooh, tough one! The Mummy (1999) is more of an action-adventure than a horror film, but that’s definitely my favourite film of all time. If I had to pick a classic horror film (i.e. pre-2000), it’d have to be The Omen (1976). My post-2000 horror film would be The Witch (2015).

“What’s the most haunted place you’ve ever been?”

The first two ghost hunts I did were at Drakelow Tunnels, Kidderminster, so that’s probably the most haunted place I’ve deliberately been to! I’ve been to Dudley Castle and Warwick Castle quite a lot too (although not for spooky purposes!) and they’re both allegedly haunted too.

These questions were from my good friend Sarah, who is a legend. Shout out to Sarah!

“Do you think that paranormal entities serve a purpose/have a function or do you think they merely “exist”?”

I think it’s possible that some entities do! There are plenty of people who agree with the theory that some latch onto a location or a person because they have a mission to carry out or a message to deliver.

“Personal opinion on the most significant (or cool, or interesting, or downright spooky) historical example of the paranormal/unexplained?”

Whether you class this as a paranormal incident depends on which theory you believe, but the spookiest example that immediately came to mind was the Dyatlov Pass incident.

Nine experienced hikers perished on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl in Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1959. The evidence suggests something made them run out of their tents, none of them properly dressed for the weather, and six subsequently died of hypothermia. The other three hikers were found with physical trauma – chest fractures, a shattered skull, even a missing tongue and eyes. It’s a story that’s stuck with me since I first read about it, primarily because it has remained unsolved. Theories range from an avalanche, to an animal attack, to aliens. There are even folks who reckon it was a yeti.

I find it especially spooky because we may never know exactly what happened. Historians and paranormal investigators alike have their theories, there have been documentaries and horror movies made on the subject, but we’ll probably never find the answer.  *shudder*

The most significant event I can think of is probably the Patterson-Gimlin film (1967), which is likely the most famous piece of footage of Bigfoot out there. Two friends filmed what they believed to be Bigfoot in Humboldt County, California, and the still I’ve included below is arguably the most iconic image of Bigfoot.

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“Spookiest/most unexplainable encounter you’ve had?”

Ooh, there’s been a few! The spookiest was definitely the very first “paranormal” encounter I ever had. It was when I was in primary school – I’ve got a feeling I was about 6 years old. I was asleep at my dad’s house and something abruptly woke me up, although I don’t know what. I lifted my head off the pillow and saw a face looking at me above my headboard.

The figure – though I could only see its very white, very gaunt face – was standing between the head of my bed and the door. It must have been reasonably tall for me to see it, as I had bunk beds at the time (the lower bunk had drawers and shelves instead of another bed). I’m now roughly 5’6″ (1.7m) and, picturing the bunk beds now, they were probably as tall as I am. We stared at one another for a couple of seconds. Then the entity opened its mouth and made a gasping, growling sound, which (obviously) startled me and I put my head back down on the pillow with the duvet over me. When I looked up, the thing was gone and, shortly after, my dad came in to check on me. I asked him if anyone had been in my room and he replied that no-one had.

I’ve talked to other people about this experience. A friend of mine at secondary school believed it was probably sleep paralysis, a condition in which a person is conscious but unable to move and they may hallucinate vividly. I respectfully disagree, as I distinctly remember moving and speaking throughout the experience and I’ve never had any sleep problems before or since. What I find most odd is that I’ve never had any other strange or potentially paranormal experiences at my dad’s. I’ve heard noises without a source at my mom’s house, but nothing more at Dad’s house.

“Do you think “paranormal”/”horror” films have created an undue fear or resistance to the paranormal?”

I think so! In some ways, horror films have the potential to get people interested in the paranormal, but I think they often give a false representation of what ghost hunters/paranormal investigators do and what “contacting spirits” is actually like. There’s this idea that all spirits are trying to manipulate or kill you, whereas the couple of times I’ve been ghost-hunting have been really positive experiences. It was fun and interesting rather than scary. I came away from those experiences with a lot to think about, but I wasn’t upset or frightened.

Generally, we’re all a bit scared of what we don’t understand and that’s totally natural. My very first “paranormal” experience was terrifying, but that was largely because I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I feel like I’m armed with information and experience when I go ghost-hunting now, so there’s less to feel afraid of!

Thank you to the folks who contributed! These were such interesting questions and I had loads of fun answering them.

If you couldn’t think of anything to ask this time around or missed the submission deadline, never fear! I think I’ll do this again – maybe we should make it an annual thing? Let me know what you think!

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Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E3 – “Once Removed”

Warning: this review doesn’t contain any major plot points, but I do talk a little bit about the storytelling style and narrative techniques. If you want to watch it totally cold with no prior knowledge, I’d suggest coming back to this review once you’ve seen the episode.

Well, so far in Series 4, Steve Pemberton has ended up on Reece Shearsmith’s lap twice… so there’s that. Just wanted to open with that. I’m not complaining.

We’re halfway through the series! I’m trying not to feel sad about the inevitable end to Series 4; there’s still three more episodes to go, after all. There’s not much to feel sad about, really, because we’ve been blessed with three fantastic episodes already.

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We’ve had such interesting narrative techniques this series – Zanzibar with its iambic pentameter, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room with its pathos-filled slow burner of a story, and now Once Removed with its storytelling in reverse. The episode starts with the story’s end and concludes with its beginning (“reverse chronology” is the correct term for this). I love some quirky chronology – I’ve submitted an essay this week dealing partially with unconventional temporality in a poem by Jorge Luis Borges – so I was hyped when I clocked what was happening. Inside No. 9 never fails to surprise me and this episode was no exception.

Seeing Emilia Fox in Inside No. 9 was a thrilling moment, I won’t lie. I’ve loved her since she played Morgause in BBC’s Merlin and she was wonderful in this (as always). My only complaint would be that she isn’t in it enough, but that’s not really a concrete thing you could fix (it would just have made me personally happy).

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Reece’s wig in this episode was a choice, but not one I entirely disapproved of. It entertained me. I liked it. Miss Thing worked that lacefront and I wasn’t even that mad about it.

This was my favourite episode of this series (so far). It had all the elements that first drew me to Inside No. 9 – it was hysterically funny, genuinely shocking and it had a good bit of blood splattering around, which I’m always here for. Don’t skimp on the blood, ever. I had tons of fun watching it, to the point that I sort of felt bad for my flatmates and neighbours because I was laughing so hard.

 

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Episode 4, To Have and To Hold, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 23rd January, BBC2.

Review: Inside No. 9, S4 E2 – “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”

Brief note: I’m tagging my Inside No. 9 reviews under “horror” because some of the previous episodes have strong horror elements. I don’t really have a “hilarious, heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying comedy anthology” tag, so, unfortunately, episodes like this one which aren’t horror-related are going under the tag just to keep the reviews together.

The single spoiler (or semi-spoiler) in this review is in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read it.

Wow. So this was… upsetting.

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I remember watching 12 Days of Christine (the second episode of the second series) for the first time and just being blown away by how profoundly tragic and well-written it was. I feel similarly about Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The episodes with stronger horror influences give me chills of a different kind; the twist can be pretty brutal. But episodes like this one have a different sort of twist. It’s a bit slower, a bit gentler. It gives you chance to really appreciate the pathos of the piece.

It’s more of an “Ohhhh. Oh, that’s sad.” rather than an “OH SHIT WHAT THE FUCK” (I’m looking at you, The Harrowing/Seance Time/The Devil of Christmas).

The plot, very briefly put to avoid spoilers, is that Len Shelby and Tommy Drake, a comedy double-act, have reunited after 30 years for one last gig. Len (Steve Pemberton) is eager to revive their act, but Tommy (Reece Shearsmith) has moved on. And so has the rest of the world: there’s a particularly brilliant scene with “the interview sketch”, culminating in a bit of commentary on political correctness. There’s so much going on in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room – commentary on stardom [(Len’s alcoholism is revealed to be what ultimately drove them apart)], lots of fun nostalgia for a bygone era of comedy and a desperately bittersweet ending.

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My mom and I laughed throughout the episode. My mom cried at the end. (I didn’t quite get that far, but I’m heartless so please don’t gauge anything by my emotions, really.) I think that’s the mark of a good piece of television; it makes you feel something without being gratuitous or taking the easy route.

This review is a bit shorter than the first, mostly because I wanted to establish in that review why I’ve specifically chosen to write about this series. I also simply have less to say about this one. I started watching Inside No. 9 because I love dark humour, so the episodes that appeal to me the most are the ones with something grotesque, something nasty. That doesn’t mean I don’t deeply enjoy episodes like Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. It was sweet, funny and beautifully crafted. A strong episode overall.

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Episode 3, Once Removed, will be broadcast at 10pm on Tuesday 16th January, BBC2.

 

Q & A!

Quick post to say I’m opening up the floor to you folks!

Ask me any spooky questions you like. They can be about my opinions (e.g. “What’s your favourite horror film?”, “Do you believe in Bigfoot?”). They can even be factual questions (e.g. “You mentioned [insert case/cryptid/haunting/paranormal term here] and I don’t know what that is. Explain!”).

Just some ground rules: I won’t be answering any questions I consider to be insulting or too personal. I also won’t answer any questions that aren’t relevant to this blog: for example, “How do you think politics and social issues influence urban legends?” would be a very good and topical question, but, in this case, “Which way do you vote?” is not. Like many other things, politics is important to me; it’s just not specifically what I’m doing here. Lastly, any hate comments and/or trolling won’t be acknowledged – I enjoy chatting to sceptics very much, but that can be done in a civil manner.

To ask your question, either drop me a comment below this post or a message on Instagram (@judeandtheobscure). Specify if you would prefer not to be named or if you would like me to include your Instagram handle or blog name (get yourself that promo, yaaas).

Q & A submissions open Saturday 6th January 2018 and close Saturday 20th January 2018. I’ll then finalise them over the weekend.

Get askin’!

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Update: you can read the Q & A here!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

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It’s alright, Danny. 2018 will be better.

Firstly: a big, BIG thank you to you lovely people who take the time to read what I post on this daft little blog! I can’t express my gratitude enough – this is very much my passion project and I’m very protective of it. People rarely want to hear my opinions on Bigfoot, horror movies and hauntings (funnily enough, there’s not much call for it in everyday life), so this is a place I’ve created where I can share all that stuff. Even if it doesn’t matter to anyone but me, it has its own small space in the world.

Secondly: a plan of action for 2018. I’ve noticed that I’ve posted a lot of horror film reviews and analysis pieces recently. This is no bad thing – I’ve enjoyed writing them – but I’m aware that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. My main goal is to get back into the habit of writing the research series (which you can find under Lunar Files, Haunted Files, Hidden Files). They take more time than a review – the review content is coming directly from my own head, but those articles require research and I prefer to have them structured more formally (more like an essay, for example).

I’d also like to write more about how I’ve brought spooky things into my life – a bit more about my ghost-hunting antics, about my tarot reading and about how these things intersect with my politics and feminist views. These aren’t all separate parts of my life; they’re all important elements of my identity.

Finally, by way of an explanation (not an excuse): I’m a university student, so my posting schedule is rather erratic. My degree has to be the priority – as much as I would love to write this blog, travel around hunting monsters and be spooky as a full-time career, only a lucky few get the privilege and opportunity to do that. I’ll do my best to post as frequently as is possible. I can only apologise for denying you the pleasure of my company and boundless wit, but duty calls.

Thank you again. I’m sorry that I can’t be more profound with my expression of thanks, but there is profundity enough in the world. It would be insincere of me to be anything other than my irreverent self.

Yours in life and in death,

Jude.

P.S. Remember that Inside No. 9 starts again tomorrow at 10pm on BBC Two! That’s not strictly relevant, but I’m planning to do a brief (hopefully spoiler-free) review of each episode and avoid doing any lengthy horror movie reviews for a while. If you haven’t ever seen it (where do you live, under a fucking rock?), the previous three series are on iPlayer. Love yourself and watch it.

P.S. 2. Ask A Mortician‘s Caitlin Doughty posted a new video in tribute to her “year of content”. But the fun doesn’t stop there – it’ll continue through 2018. The death revolution begins now! Subscribe if you haven’t already.

P.S. 3. I’m not sponsored by any of the people/products I’ve ever mentioned. You think I’m making money here? Please, I wish. I just love talking about the things I adore and the people I admire.

Review: “My Scientology Movie” (2015)

I’m two years late to the party, but I finally got round to delving into Louis Theroux’s documentary on the Church of Scientology, My Scientology Movie (2015). Directed by John Dower, the film documents the attempts of Theroux and crew to create some sort of dialogue with the Church itself – with varying success. The Church refused to participate in the making of the film (in fact, many of their letters to the producers of the documentary are shown within the film itself), so the documentary takes a different approach to most: the filmmakers prodded and poked until they got a reaction. Many of the key anecdotes from ex-Scientologists are re-enacted with young actors and the audition process also makes up part of the film.

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I expected the film to be interesting – as an outsider, I find Scientology to be fascinating and I’ve enjoyed all the documentaries of Theroux’s that I’ve watched – but I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it is. Throughout the film, Theroux’s interviews are interrupted by unidentified individuals who simply appear out of nowhere, cameras rolling and demanding to know exactly what he thinks he’s doing. It’s genuinely quite disturbing to see the ease with which they track down dissenters, traitors and anyone else they perceive to be a threat to Scientology’s aims. At one point, the main interviewee, ex-Scientology Inspector General Marty Rathbun, is greeted at the airport terminal by three high-ranking Church executives. His footage of their psychologically abusive rhetoric, insisting that the Church doesn’t miss him and that he isn’t living “a real life”, is difficult to watch. As Theroux puts it in the film, “They are behaving in a way that is so obviously pathological—you would think they would realize that other people would see that and think this is a religion of lunatics.” The way Scientology is presented by its followers – a misunderstood, intensive self-help course, essentially – is directly at odds with the reality shown in the documentary. They come off as paranoid, invasive and frequently rather scary.

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A large part of the film focuses on Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, who took over leadership after the death of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. It also deals with allegations of Miscavige’s violent outbursts towards Scientologists such as Jeff Hawkins (another interviewee and ex-Scientologist) and harassment of journalists and defectors from the Church. The footage shown of Miscavige at grand Scientology galas is disquieting too – all dictators worth their salt have a sense of the theatrical, I suppose.

Regardless of how Scientologists come across by virtue of their own actions, it’s a very balanced portrayal of the Church. It’s clear that they didn’t set out to make a film about how “evil” the Church of Scientology is; they simply dive into the oddness of it all. In many ways, it’s an incredibly funny piece of filmmaking. It was referred to in a Telegraph review as “Pythonesque” and I’d have to agree – it almost seems beyond belief. Cars with blacked-out windows, ominous letters and visits from sketchy Scientologist minions are strange things to see in a documentary, but it’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff.

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I’d highly recommend My Scientology Movie. Louis Theroux is on top form, the documentary itself is structured in an unusual and interesting way and I really felt for the ex-Scientologists interviewed (or, at least, for some of them). I got the impression that they understood that they could never really escape. No matter how far they run, the Church will always track them down, learn who they’re fraternising with and what they’re doing. That’s terrifying.

My personal thoughts on Scientology can be summed up in an excellent quote from John Sweeney, a BBC correspondent who was harassed by Scientologist operatives while making a documentary about the Church. In a 2012 article for The Independent, he said of the Church of Scientology: “In the 21st century, everyone has a right to believe in anything or nothing. But not everything that claims to be a religion is a religion. It could be, for example, a brain washing cult.”

My Scientology Movie is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 19 days.

P.S. If you’ve heard nothing from me by next month, you know that they’ve silenced me. 😉

Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)

World of Weird: Alien ASMR by GentleWhispering!

I think the prize for spookiest (and cutest) ASMR video ever has to go to Gentle Whispering! I was so excited to see Maria had uploaded a special video in preparation for Halloween. It’s as relaxing as all her other videos, but it also made me smile – our alien overlords have never seemed so adorable.

The video is linked below: let her give you a makeover so you’re ready to invade the Earth and brainwash the Earthlings in time for Halloween!

Wolves On Film: A Visual History Of The Cinematic Werewolf

Warning: this article contains some gory images, as well as potential spoilers for the films discussed.

It’s no secret: I love werewolf films. It might seem like a strange niche of the horror genre to be particularly interested in, but films about werewolves deal with the human psyche in a very specific, primal way. Unsurprisingly, the concept of a human turning into an animal – or some beastly hybrid – opens up fascinating discussions about human nature. How civilised are we? How successfully can we override our basic instincts? And what would it take to tip us over the edge into animalistic brutality?

Alongside the psychological aspect, I always look forward to seeing how each individual film chooses to interpret the werewolf and why. I can forgive a lot of narrative failings if the werewolf of the film is distinctive in the way it’s depicted. There’s no real chronology in terms of how werewolves are shown on screen, although I would argue you’re more likely to see a CGI werewolf in the 21st century than in the 20th (for obvious reasons). In a way, I find that disappointing – I’m a sucker for the costumes of horror’s yesteryear and I’d much rather see a valiant attempt at an interesting werewolf costume than a CGI construction. I don’t hate CGI by any means, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when a horror film doesn’t take that route.

Early cinematic werewolves were much more human-like, primarily due to the technical constraints of the time. The very first Hollywood film to feature a werewolf was Universal Pictures’ Werewolf of London (1935). This was followed by their much more successful – and now iconic – The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr.

By today’s standards, the make-up FX naturally seem simplistic, but the visual effects used in The Wolf Man were deliberately more complex than in Werewolf of London, taking up to six hours to apply. Both these werewolves place on the more human end of the spectrum and are easily recognised as 1930s – 1940s designs. As the genre evolved, filmmakers took more creative liberties with werewolf anatomy, but I’m quite fond of both of these. I don’t necessarily find them scary; however, I think the genre owes a lot to them.

The 1980s saw a boom in the werewolf genre with the release of An American Werewolf In London (1981), The Howling (1981) and its slew of sequels, The Company of Wolves (1984) and somewhat lesser-known offerings like Silver Bullet (1985). It’s important to note the more tongue-in-cheek werewolf films of this period too, such as Full Moon High (1981) and Teen Wolf (1985). An American Werewolf In London shares something with both of these – the portrayal of the werewolf as a sympathetic protagonist, a slave to the curse who we are encouraged to pity. However, where the werewolves of Full Moon High and Teen Wolf have more in common with the werewolf designs of the early Universal Pictures films, the titular American werewolf is definitely more wolfish. There’s barely a trace of David left by the time the transformation is complete.

The Company of Wolves – one of my favourite films – is also firmly planted in the “wolf” camp. Although there are plenty of in-between scenes, at the end of the transformation there is no difference between the human-turned-wolf and an ordinary wolf (they admittedly used Belgian Shepherd dogs for most of the filming). This is deliberate; it lends itself to the fairy tale environment that the film cultivates and blurs the line between the “real” world we see at the start of the film and the “dream” world within which most of the action takes place. Then you have the beasts who sit somewhere in the middle. In Silver Bullet, the adaptation of the novella Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form is bipedal but nowhere near as human as in The Wolf Man. The design is more reminiscent of a bear for me, but you can judge it yourself. The werewolf of Silver Bullet is also portrayed fairly sympathetically – we never find out the origins of Reverend Lowe’s curse in the film, but there’s a particularly good “nightmare” scene in which we see how troubled he is by it.

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Reverend Lowe’s werewolf form, Silver Bullet (1985)

The Howling also favours the bipedal, “upright” werewolf. I’ll be honest – of all the werewolves analysed in this article, this is the interpretation I find creepiest. I think the transformation is gruesome and the werewolves themselves are freaky-looking in a way none of the others are. You might disagree, but something about the way they’re designed unsettles me and I can never quite put my finger on what it is.

The werewolves of The Howling could be distant cousins of those depicted in Dog Soldiers (2002). The Dog Soldiers werewolves are probably my favourites in all of cinema, because they’re just such an interesting visual choice. They’re quick, tall and seemingly quite slender, but they have tremendous brute strength. We don’t see a lot of them until towards the climax of the film – throughout the majority of the runtime, we see brief flashes of them, often hidden by shadow. It makes the later scenes in which we see them fully even more shocking. Their heads are more wolflike, but their bodies are an even mix of wolf and human. Reiterating what I said earlier, I really do prefer these types of werewolves to the CGI creations used in films like the Twilight franchise. There’s just something quite nostalgic about the costumes and prosthetics for me – I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into making them and they hearken back to a time before complex computer design.

In 2000, Ginger Snaps showed us an entirely different type of werewolf. I like this design too. Ginger Fitzgerald doesn’t fully transform into a werewolf until the end of the film, but the build-up to the final transformation is beautifully constructed. Ginger Snaps is a great teen horror flick and one of my personal favourite films. Ginger’s “curse” coincides with her menarche and the whole film serves as a really interesting allegory for female puberty and sexuality, in a similar vein to The Company of Wolves – in fact, I often recommend both of them at the same time because I think there’s a lot of thematic common ground.

The most recent release I’ve watched was Howl (2015). Fun fact: Howl was directed by Paul Hyett, who had previously worked on the SFX for Dog Soldiers. I’m glad they chose to do something starkly different with the werewolves in this film – they’re distinct from the Dog Soldiers werewolves but have just as much impact. There is some use of CGI, but I didn’t find myself as distracted by it as I have been in other examples. The werewolf designs are much more human, although not quite to the same extent as the very early examples from the 1930s. I won’t spoil the plot of the film, but the twist is insane and the ending is both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying.

Although they are by no means horror films, I think it’s worth discussing the werewolves of the Twilight saga. I’ve always found the CGI in these films incredibly distracting – it’s just not integrated well with the live-action sequences. The werewolves here are not particularly creative; in essence, they are just larger versions of ordinary wolves. I was a big fan of Twilight when I was in my early teens and I especially liked that Stephenie Meyer had constructed a “culture” for both vampire and werewolf society. The “fantasy culture” idea has been done better – Darren Shan’s vampire books are a fantastic example because they go into so much detail about vampire society – and we could have an extensive discussion about her appropriation of Native American ideas and traditions, but I still think the invented history and mythology behind the werewolves (and obviously the vampires) is probably the strongest part of the whole franchise. The werewolves of Twilight are much more sympathetic than earlier examples and I credit Twilight considerably with starting the cinematic trend of the “sexy monster” – or perhaps taking the idea of a sympathetic monster and dumbing it down and sexing it up removing all the subtlety from it.

On that note, I’d like to conclude by briefly summarising the evolution of the cinematic werewolf. It hasn’t been clean and simple. Depictions haven’t neatly evolved from humanoid to more lupine, from unsympathetic to sympathetic, from one-note to complex, in the way you might expect. Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers were released just two years apart in the early 2000s and they take drastically different viewpoints. The werewolves of Dog Soldiers are animals – they are motivated by a desire to kill and devour. They are not particularly complicated, layered characters. Ginger Fitzgerald, however, is a much more complex character. The audience is encouraged not only to be scared of her but also to be scared for her.

Like many movie monsters, that’s the beauty of the werewolf as a plot device. They are us and them all at once. They can be deeply human, flawed in a way that produces pathos, and they can just as easily be deeply inhuman. In every new werewolf film, it’s always interesting to see which way the balance will tip.

Review: “IT: Chapter One” (2017)

Warning: to avoid spoiling the plot for you, I have changed the font colour of any spoilers so that you won’t immediately see it. Spoilers are contained in yellow parentheses like [this] – if you would like to read the spoiler, simply highlight it with your cursor.

“And now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown!”

I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It yesterday. I’ll confess: I haven’t read the book nor seen the original mini-series (a heinous crime for a horror fan), but in a way, I’m glad that I went in without any expectations. Misery by Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite books, but when I finally got around to watching the film adaptation, I found myself nitpicking at tiny changes to the material. I’m grateful that this wasn’t the case with It.

Stephen King's It Trailer screen grab

I was incredibly impressed with this film. It struck a beautiful balance between subtle psychological horror – it wasn’t afraid to leave the scares implied or ambiguous – and balls-to-the-wall gore. [Six-year-old Georgie having his arm bitten right TF off within the first 10 minutes springs to mind.] I’m not particularly a fan of blood and guts; it’s why slasher films have never appealed to me. Nothing in the film felt gratuitous to me. Even Pennywise, who could have been taken way over the top and way too far, was a perfect match for the tone. With his ruff and pantaloons, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more like an antique doll than Tim Curry’s grease-painted nightmare. He’s more childlike, which makes it even more horrifying when he reveals his true form [and his jaws gape with sharklike teeth]. I’m also not a fan of horror films that lack the money shot, if you’ll pardon the phrasing – the moment when the monster is finally revealed, after snippets and glimpses throughout. It’s why I never found Freddy Krueger particularly unsettling. I knew what he looked like before I’d even watched the film; there was no suspense. I want some build-up. We see Pennywise a lot in this film and, if I’m honest, my principles got blown out of the water and I didn’t care. Dude was terrifying.

It also managed to be endearing in a way I didn’t expect. The child actors are all excellent – I sometimes find films in which children are the protagonists a little bit cringeworthy. Such a lot can go wrong, but every single one of the Losers (as they call themselves) are sincere and believable. It’s as much a coming-of-age film as it is a horror flick. It’s about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, the awkward inbetween that is adolescence. [Pennywise, or It, is a tainted, twisted version of the far more innocent clown and it seems to be the loss of innocence made manifest.] The Losers are all overcoming unique challenges, but they share a profound sense of uncertainty. I appreciated the depth to which we got to see their lives and empathise with them. My only criticism would perhaps lie with Richie, the wisecracking wannabe-Casanova of the group. Don’t get me wrong, he’s hysterical and the young actor playing him (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame) has impeccable comedic timing which would rival that of an adult comic. I just felt as though I’d seen very little of his home life [in comparison to the trauma we see affecting the others], although perhaps that was intentional – maybe he hadn’t got much of one to speak of. More Richie, please!

Movie-Cast-2017

The film also captured a great 80s vibe. It was giving me a hint of The Goonies, and seeing the kids cycling along the roads strongly reminded me of the holy water scene from The Lost Boys too. It had that same kind of dark humour – frightened, foulmouthed adolescents, what’s funnier than that? I love films with a throwback aesthetic: if it’s done properly, it can be transcendent. And It absolutely was.

A sequel has been neatly set up. This film takes place during the protagonists’ childhood, and the second film will return to them as adults [when the creature reappears after the requisite 27 years and they are forced to fight Pennywise again], splitting the plot of the book and mini-series into two separate halves. I’m very much looking forward to it.