Wow! Summer is upon us and… well, there still aren’t a ton of options available to mark the occasion. Sure, most states have begun reopening procedures (or ignored that step altogether and just “reopened,” i.e., announced by fiat that everything’s fine, don’t worry about it, just go back to buying stuff as per usual) and urged folks to be cautious and other similar bromides while downplaying the fact that a global pandemic is still in full-swing, but there’s the rub, right? All of us want in on the mythic power of summer but the world has to go and remind us how 1) we’re not out of the woods yet and 2) we are so not in control of anything, effectively pulling a Hooper on us all:
But hey, humans are gonna human, so don’t be surprised when you see sixteen frat bros with their ladies at the beach occupying 216 cubic feet and about ten yards from a MAGA flag with six score unmasked enthusiasts. For the love of Aunt Jemima, steer clear! Please, do get outdoors, y’all, but be smart, ok?
But when you’re not outside, working that quarantine body into a more classically summer one, we at Grindhouse advise you make a pitcher of sweet tea, crank the AC, sit back, and tremble at these odious offerings of summer-tinged (well, in one of them, maybe more like summer-singed) horror. McKenna hones in on SoCal scares and Caleb tunes in to the tube, while Blake fires up his sacred cow flamethrower (but what’s new there?) and Trevor researches romance amidst the rigor mortis. So,
Here are the flicks and shows that’ll make you grab your phone and say,
Martin Luther famously opened his 95 Theses by insisting that “[w]hen our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Well, here I am, in 2020, on the cusp of the grand finale of one of the finest cult classics in recent television history, I am repenting, repenting, repenting. I can’t believe I’ve just now discovered Supernatural—a full 15 years after its premiere. I should clarify that I’ve known about it for that long, but always (and wrongly) suspected it would just be a watered-down Buffy, when, in fact, it was the pitch perfect “Dudes Rock” antiphonal reply. Color me surprised that this desaturated, monster-of-the-week melodrama has turned out to be a vibrant world of gods and devils that refuses to be embarrassed by the very large and sentimental heart it wears on its distressed leather sleeve. Now that our current moment finds itself undulating between self-isolation and teeming, angry streets, the never-ending summer road trip of brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester and their audacious quest to destroy all demons serves as the kind of call to love and fraternity that we may just need to be reminded of. Granted, I’m only through 4 seasons of a 15-season run and still grit my teeth at the goofy angelology and suspect use of Christian rites, I can still confidently say that this summer will absolutely rip as I ride along with the Winchesters in a ‘67 Chevy Impala equipped with shotguns of rock salt and tons of water: be it holy or Creedance Clear-.
Doom Patrol (2019-present)
Summertime is the best time to read comic books and binge comic shows. And now that HBO Max has acquired the DC Universe exclusive, Doom Patrol, you have the opportunity to dive into some of the coolest summertime stories of the last quarter-century. On June 25th, the second season of the ultra-weird, punk rock surrealism of Doom Patrol is coming back with a vengeance. Originally a throw-away series by DC Comics in the late 60’s, Grant Morrison revitalized this team with his trademark metaphysical and meta-narrative theatrics. The TV show is a loose adaption of his mid-90’s work. The premise isn’t all that original (a band of misfits fighting for a place at society’s table), but the tenor of the show feels relevant—a group disenfranchised losers coming together to heal and find belonging after tragedy strikes. Of course, this turns into a very literal fight with cloned Nazis and evil demigods. Every episode is a hit of DMT strained through a series of fourth-wall breaking jokes from a robot, living blob, being of pure energy, and a girl with 64 personalities going to group therapy sessions when they aren’t teleporting to Paraguay to summon the spirit of a blue unicorn. It’s a mad mad mad mad world for people that only want to love and be loved, and if that’s not the most relatable premise wrapped in comic kookiness, then I don’t what to tell you. And hey, since the show is shot about 7 minutes away from my house, maybe you’ll catch me in the background from time to time. I’ll tell Robotman and Crazy Jane you said, “Hello.”
Paranormal Activity 1-4
I grew up in (and have since returned to) southern California, a place where folks have a lot of ideas about what summer looks like. And they’re not all wrong! Long days at the beach, boardwalks, pool days, and the US Open of Surfing in my particular area: it’s all there. But for myself, the most nostalgic summer feeling is … air conditioning in the suburbs. Returning to a cool, crisply air-conditioned home in the burbs after a long day out in the heat has got to be one of my most intensely nostalgic childhood rituals. It’s like that tweet I’ve seen floating around: the epic, pre-dinner wipeout nap you take when you were a kid after you’d been swimming all afternoon and you’re slightly sunburnt. I promise what made those naps so good was the AC.
All this to say, the idea of a horror movie exclusively taking place inside a southern California home – with AC and tiled floors and mowed lawns with palm trees in the yard – hits me deep in my west coast suburbanite feels. The Paranormal Activity franchise is staged in sunshine-filled tract house communities (hello Carlsbad! hello Santa Rosa!) with their inhabitants tormented by one very persistent nocturnal demon. The found footage format only adds to the sense of it all hitting way too close to home for me. I tend to disregard Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones and just stick with the first four films as they tell the most cohesive story. Granted, they’re not nearly all equal in scare quality or plot (the first and third being far superior to the other two), but they’re all fun enough to binge together. Watch them in order of release, or watch the third, second, first, and then fourth for more chronological storytelling. I’m terrified each time I view them, likely because what I’m witnessing is what it would look like to have a demon in my childhood home when all else seems well in the world.
Alien³ (Assembly Cut)
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that the first three Alien films and one specific scene in the fourth film are the only parts of the franchise I legitimately like. The rest of the fourth film and the other films are trash with varying levels of enjoyment had in their “badness.” I agree with the majority opinion that Alien is the best and a stone-cold classic. However, after that my opinion varies pretty widely from the majority. Alien³ (Assembly Cut) is easily my second favorite film in the franchise, then it’s that specific scene in Alien: Resurrection, AND THEN Aliens. Yeah, I know I’m an asshole, but I’m an asshole who “found God in the ass-end of space.”
Alien³ is deeply flawed, don’t get me wrong, but, conceptually, it towers over the rest of the franchise. David Fincher to this day will not talk about the problematic making of the film. That’s how messed up the whole film production was: a trauma best left to mystery. Yet, the Assembly Cut gets closer in uncovering what Fincher’s vision was for the film. I am not the first to make this comparison, but Alien³ was The Name of the Rose in space. And it remains the most fatalistic entry in the franchise. Whereas Aliens is a typical James Cameron joint where he attempts to make a knock-off Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick out of what was a contemplative science-fiction/horror film. Fincher’s vision of Alien³ was, in theory (and nearly in practice), a return to that quiet and contemplative format. The film meets us at the intersection of industrial, religious affections, and the feminine, impregnation of machismo. The film’s weakest element is its dated CGI. Yet, this is the case with 90+/-% of films that contain CGI. So if you can forgive it that, then what you will find is the only entry in the franchise that conjures up some of the silence that was so terrifying in the first film.
Beast is an audacious debut by British director Michael Pearce in which he explores the notion of man as beast and continuously inverts the role of predator and prey. The story starts with Moll (Jessie Buckley) feeling numb and detached at a birthday party where a fumbling acquaintance tries to pick her up and a relative makes a pregnancy announcement. Thematically, the reveal that a guest is going to have twins signals the motif of the duality of man that will develop throughout the film. Ditching her own party, Moll retreats to a night club where she becomes intoxicated and flirts with a dubious man. As the dawn approaches, the two wander away to a tunnel where the man begins to sexually assault her. However, a hunter and native of the island arrives to rescue her, but is he protector or another predator? The liberator, revealed to be Pascal (Johnny Flynn), soon earns the affection of Moll and the two enter a kinetic, highly energized romance. Meanwhile, the island is beleaguered by a serial killer who is targeting women the same age as Moll. Pascal, a frequent suspect of the police with a criminal past, comes under suspicion, and Moll, an individual with a violent history of her own, provides a false alibi. The entire work is a compelling, atmospheric psychological examination that juxtaposes who is the hunter and who is the hunted. In the legacy of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017), Beast is a thought-provoking, artistic film about trauma, family dysfunction and the animalistic urges in each of us and serves as a promising rookie effort for Pearce.
The Loved Ones
In another director’s inaugural film, a teen is abducted in a narrative that channels both Brian De Palma and John Hughes. Sean Byrne’s 2009 The Loved Ones is equally mixed with glitter and gore and aims to explore the unraveling psyche of two parallel characters who are struggling with survivor’s guilt. Both are prisoners of their shame and remorse but in different ways. Set in an Australian small town, the protagonist, Brent (Xavier Samuel) is coping with the fact that he was the one driving with his father when he swerved to avoid a pedestrian in the road and smashed into a tree, thereby killing his dad. Following an emotional conversation with his mother where he accuses her of blaming him for his father’s death (she does), Brent storms off, using a razor blade to cut his hands. Unfortunately for our main character, he is blindsided by the father of the girl who asked him to the dance but was turned down. By all accounts, Lola (Robin McLeavy) makes Carrie look like she was suffering from a mild neurosis. Our spurned high schooler delights in inflicting all kinds of torture on Brent all the while engaging in some cringe-inducing flirtations with her father and enacting a mock school dance. Although the focus is on Brent, a good amount of screen time covers the goth date of the protagonist’s friend. Prone to self-destructive behavior and presenting an opaque appearance, this girl has also lost someone. Byrne’s movie falters and misses an opportunity to fully explore this character, one who is more compelling than the rest of the stereotypical cast. The Loved Ones is a good film to pair with Beast as both look at the ideas of trauma, loss, and pain. Ultimately though, Sean Byrne’s film fails to fully subvert our expectations. Nevertheless, both movies are stylized, aesthetically pleasing stories to begin a spooky summer.
The original summer blockbuster is also the movie that made people afraid to get in the pool or take a bath, much less go to the beach. And not dissimilar to today, its premise— titanic rogue great white shark sets up shop in New England waters and likes it there, thank you very much— gets off the ground (out of the water?) due to the fact that rich white guys have a stake in living in denial of a grave threat. Shoot, it’s not even allegory, it’s more of a Petrine “this is that” (Acts 2:16, KJV) assuming the correspondence is so identifiable it would insult someone’s intelligence to unpack it at length. “You’re going to ignore this problem until it swims up and bites you in the ass!” is the prophetic word spoken in 1975 that could have been repeated, syllable for syllable, in the Oval Office in February of 2020 and gone just as unheeded by the rapacious powers that be.
That doesn’t make it any less terrifying or apt, though, or any less grisly: good grief, the carnage is potent for a forty-five-year-old flick! Yes, it’s renowned for its masterful restraint, but man when that restraint is released is it a bloodbath.
For whatever reason I was allowed to watch Jaws when I was five years old, which is a fairly horrific rite of passage into horror fandom. I mean, to this day, watching Quint’s last stand is rough— it’s a wonder I made it out of childhood with whatever emotional stability I did after witnessing a man being devoured by a monstrous shark. Because I didn’t grasp what exactly “special effects” were, I presumed that my seeing a man being so eaten could only mean that a flesh-and-blood human being was, in fact, consumed by a giant-ass shark. My analytical mind pieced together that this meant that Robert Shaw must’ve been paid a handsome sum upfront, as he obviously wouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor after becoming fish food. “What a brave man,” I thought each time I saw him struggling unsuccessfully to keep from sliding into Bruce’s ravenous maw.
Anymore, though, I reflect on the film’s choice to spare Hooper (who dies in the novel and kinda has it coming) and offer up Quint instead as consistent with its tacit critique of capitalism: the working class are fodder to be sacrificed to the terrifying forces that threaten the status quo so as to shore up the authority of the police and preserve the assets of the bourgeoisie. We like Hooper, but he says himself he’s not interested in Quint’s “working class hero” crap, and sure enough, he, Quint, and Chief Brody are dispatched to terminate the shark with extreme prejudice once denial of its existence becomes impossible to uphold. But Quint is already marked: money buffers Hooper from danger; the badge shields Brody from it; only Quint is susceptible to harm. This is why Quint knows he’s going to win the famous (and initially funny) scar comparison game with Hooper— his experience on the USS Indianapolis is going to beat anything pampered Hooper’s undergone. But in the same way that the Indianapolis’ crew delivery of the atomic bomb secured victory in WWII but doomed the vast majority of them to death, the trio aboard Quint’s boat will defeat the shark but spell doom for Quint. Like his friend Herbie Robinson from the Indianapolis he’s bit in half below the waist, castrated to win back revenue for Amity’s ruling class.
Well, damn, that was sort of a bummer.
No, not that Scare Me— don’t let the exact same title and release year fool you! This little non-gem trades in the friends-telling-spooky-stories conceit with the added twist of, “Are they all in someone else’s story?” The film’s thumbnail art intrigued me, exciting all sorts of nostalgic feels in my macabre heart, but it ended up evading almost any potential retro route whatsoever. What it did offer up was confused commentary on “political correctness,” police brutality, and biased media, attempts at meta-criticisms of horror movie tropes, and characters who succeed in being as un-self-aware as most of the replaceable cardboard figures you’ll encounter in other twenty-first century anthology horror. You’ll even meet a character who demonstrably doesn’t know what “hit the hay means” (hint: it has nothing to do with using the restroom) or other colloquialisms such as “must be something in the water” (“…the water??”). This same guy— I’m not joking, it’s like the screenwriters wanted you to not believe this person could possibly exist somewhere in the real world— oozes machismo so plentifully his girlfriend complains of his odor but tells the single most questionable campfire story of the night, one which makes clear he’s deeply conflicted and closeted behind his belligerent, alpha persona. AND YET, when the twist comes he rises to the occasion to become a hero (I mean, he is white, so…) as if we knew he had it in him the whole time.
You’d think I hated Scare Me from all of the above remarks, but actually it was a boatload of fun to watch long distance with Trevor. Unfortunately, the boat in question was the Titanic, but don’t let that deter you: hop onboard now so you can be in on the Scare Me Shared Universe the film’s dangling threads hint at before it becomes cool. In the alternate universe where that ever happens.
Eye of the Beast
You know a movie’s going to be awesome when the hero’s introductory shot is James Van Der Beek turning to look just past the camera.
I regularly soapbox the dearth of giant squid movies— call me a cephalopod tubthumper— and was delighted to find a successor film to 1977’s Tentacles. More deliciously yet, this film hails from Canada (eh?), a worthy flight across the Prime Meridian for the perfect oceanic killing machine. I said what I said: the perfect oceanic killing machine. Forget sharks, forget piranhas, forget barracuda. Imagine forty-foot-long sinewy arms gripping you in a suction cupped embrace, yanking you towards its razor sharp beak and rough, obscene tongue. The stuff of nightmares, right?
Well, this film fits itself with wings but doesn’t really fly too close to the sun so much as it trolls around Quebec’s (or Labrador’s?) Atlantic seaboard. It is schlocky fun, but its attempts at post-colonial consciousness fall flat as the conflict between Fells Island’s indigenous Cree and its white (and unforgivably stupid) residents is simply unbelievable. “Those Indians and their ‘native rights’ crap!” someone actually complains. Seriously. The island’s fishermen with Scandinavian names (and monikers like “Spider”) aver that Indian overfishing is depleting the lake and do so with a straight face, somehow. These folks also figure it’s in the community’s best interests to dispute the findings of an oceanographic researcher so as to keep the lake open for fishing in spite of the dead bodies piling up along the shore, adorned with enormous sucker marks. SQUID’S A HOAX! REOPEN THE LAKE!
Well, before long (unlike the real world) the antagonistic whites realize that OH CRAP THE GIANT KILLER SQUID IS LIKE TOTALLY REAL and consecrate themselves to destroy the creature. James Van Der Beek’s character drops some serious shade on their giant squid-killing abilites a la the unholy offspring of Hooper and Quint (what I’d give for that sequel) and promises to go Van Helsing on its mollusk ass.*
Now, I know what you’re thinking: aren’t you going to admit any of the film’s flaws? And yeah, it’s not perfect. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure why it’s titled “Eye” of the Beast, as though it was a cyclopic beast, or a beast whose eye did anything that was an important plot point. We see the titular beast’s eye exactly once, in the climactic showdown between said beast and James Van Der Beek, his love interest, the myopic, provincial-as-hell fishermen he’s had to borrow rides from, and a literal boatload of Indian allies who want to kill the beast because that’s what we Indians do. Or white Canadians assume we do. (I don’t know.)
But here the problematic arises once more because James Van Der Beek picks up an unmistakeable giant squid signal cruising straight towards the boat he’s on, and after a Hunt for Red October-style countdown to impact… nothing happens. The only thing I can surmise is that the (clearly bigoted) giant squid picked up the scent of Cree in the air as he goes from floating prone beneath Dawson’s boat to launching an all-out attack on the boat full of Indians. None of whom survive. Of course.
So in spite of its efforts to shine a light on the whole Indian dislocation and distrust issue (hey, it’s a Canadian thing too, and not just ‘merica’s!) it stumbles, topples over into the drink, and is made mincemeat of by a huge, pissed off squid. However, it does have an important testimony to the value of celibacy (Van Der Beek’s character gives his Top 10 Reasons Fishing Is Better Than Sex) and works in actual Native Americans instead of Caucasians with spray tans, so uninspired CGI aside, it still has a lot going for it. Cheers!
*This isn’t exactly accurate, as mollusks accrete waste in their mantle and excrete them out from there. So its butt is uncomfortably close to the head, though for the squid itself this is no doubt normal and not a cause for existential nausea of any sort.