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Why I Was More Excited for The Woods than a New Blair Witch

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In a near decade-long, industry-wide edict of IP-driven filmmaking, where branding and synergistic endeavors based off decades-old stories are exploited for high payoff with little to no consideration given to individual artistic expression and innovation, horror has, curiously, remained a steadfast advocate for the new and the unusual.

Sure, budgets of horror films have dipped significantly; thanks in part to the success of the Blumhouse model of moviemaking. However, with the limitations of budget, it’s arguable to conclude that some of the most interesting horror cinema in decades has been created. Starting with Paranormal Activity and moving into Sinister, The Conjuring, even something as recent as Lights Out, studio horror has shown a significant lack of resting on laurels. And that’s not even counting the independent side of the coin; where The Witch, The Babadook, and It Follows took over the festival circuit and validated to some moviegoers what we horror fans have known for a long time: that the horror film is as versatile and effective a storytelling tool as any.

Two such independent filmmakers of note are Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the filmmaking duo behind You’re Next and The Guest. What’s curious about both these films, and why they are interesting to me as a moviegoer, is that they are subversively self-referential. Not in a winking at the camera sense. But in a contextual one. The characters in these stories do not know they are in a movie. But the filmmakers never pretend that they are not making genre films, and with that acknowledgment comes a subtle air of self-awareness which permeates every frame of their films, like invisible ink on a treasure map only understood by those who know what to look for.

While the real world interconnects through social media, these guys found a way to speak to their audience through cinema itself. Through shot selection and character motivations, referencing past tropes and archetypes while also making fun of and subverting them, Wingard and Barrett are able to craft new stories with modern sensibilities while also commenting on what horror films are and could be in a very post-modernist deconstruction of bloody good art.

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You’re Next is perfect example of what I’m talking about.  A film that starts off as a talky slasher movie morphs into a exploitation film, almost even a comedy; it’s a movie about slasher movies while still operating as its own entity, not unlike Adam Green’s Hatchet five years before. Now, whether these nuances were intentional or not, I honestly can’t say. But their effect is unique, creating an intimacy from filmmaker to audience, a whispered understanding between co-conspirators. This subversive, understated deftness of narrative is a voice without clear comparison, an uncommon property specific of Wingard and Barrett.

So, when it was announced that the pair would be collaborating again on a horror project called The Woods, I was genuinely curious as to what that would entail. Then the first trailer came out, scored against a haunting cover of “Every Breath You Take,” and I was hooked. The tone looked grimy, filthy, like sewage wedged between your fingernails. The film, as presented, was unlike anything I had ever seen them take on before, like The Blair Witch Project on steroids. I believed that this would be their subversive commentary on the found footage genre, their opportunity to take on what we “think” we know about films like The Blair Witch Project and flip them on their head. I saw something fresh and violent, ballsy and unrelenting. In short, I was very, very excited to visit The Woods.

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And then came San Diego Comic-Con.

I’m sure Lionsgate had a calculated reason why they decided to bait and switch the audience, most likely because any announcement of a Blair Witch Project sequel would be immediately met with understandable skepticism and derision. So in an admirably unconventional ploy, they marketed the film as its own beast, an independent story called The Woods; stoking the fires of the fanbase so much that when they ultimately revealed their deception and unmasked the film for what it really was, a Blair Witch sequel, the studio hoped the fans would be even more on board for the ride. But here’s the problem that I’m not quite sure they anticipated. What if the fanbase was excited for something new? Something fresh and unique. Something in keeping with the Wingard/Barrett filmography. Something exactly like how The Woods was marketed. Only to be disappointed, and perhaps feel a bit blindsided, by the reality of the film’s IP-driven parentage.

To me this shows a distinct lack of understanding how the horror fanbase really works, especially in 2016. There was a time when the “icons” were king. Freddy. Jason. Michael. Even Jigsaw. These guys ruled our hearts and minds. Sure, there was gnarly independent stuff coming out, but we liked our horror with a dollop of familiarity. And then the remake craze took over, and we became overly satiated, our moviegoing experience flooded by the sameness of brands and properties instead of insane, terrifying, originality.

So we grew out of that phase of fandom into what I would consider a more artistically-inclined maturity. Sure, a remake now and again is not unwelcome. Evil Dead was an interesting departure from the source material, but does anybody consider it a classic? It’s a riff on something already existing. A cover song at best. And even the best cover, respectfully, can never be as satisfying as the original. There’s a reason we still talk about The Conjuring or It Follows or The Guest. They spoke to something that had never been spoken of before. They didn’t break any collective understanding of what horror movies were; in a lot of ways they were comments on the genre in general. But it was that hint of flavor, of originality, of stories feeling fresh if not a bit familiar that made them stand apart and above.

In the most recent Blair Witch trailer (as of this writing), the harshness of imagery, of tree branches being yanked from bloody wounds, of a girl screaming in pain and fear as she’s wedged into a mud-drenched hellhole, are all cross-cut with things that I’ve seen before: stickpeople hanging from trees, muddy handprints on a wall, people standing in the corner of a dilapidated room, someone telling the camera that they are are “sorry.” These moments should have sparked something referential within me, something that excited my curiosity or at least my nostalgia. But instead, all I felt was a sinking dip in my stomach, like when you go down a small hill on a roller coaster. I was left feeling a bit empty about the whole affair. What I had believed would be something new and innovative was instead a riff, a cover of a song that I’ve heard before; and what sucks is in a world of infinite stories and limited time, there’s a part of me that wonders if Blair Witch is worth mine.

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I love the The Blair Witch Project; I discovered it years after its release, after any illusion of it being a true story had long since dissipated, and found it profoundly affecting. What that movie did was shotgun horror into the real world. It narrowed the barrier between fiction and reality; it made us question what was just outside of our field of vision, around the corner or behind that tree. It’s a film about human horror. About what’s not seen; and I’m not talking about the Blair Witch herself. It’s about three people slowly losing their minds, how panic and exhaustion clouds our humanity and makes us question everything we think we know. It is a uniquely flawed piece of American filmmaking, a comment on who and what we are at the end of the 20th century. Not unlike a film that Wingard and Barrett might make today. Not unlike what I hoped The Woods would ultimately be.

I don’t blame them for making a Blair Witch sequel. And by many accounts, including that of our own Uncle Creepy himself, it’s a kick-ass time at the movies. But as for me, I’ll sit tight for when Wingard and Barrett resume their subversive ways, hopefully with their follow-up effort, Death Note, which in fairness is based off a much less famous piece of IP.

I can’t wait for them to take what already exists and flip it. To change it. Mold it and shape cinema into their own image. To create new stories, new mythologies, new monsters, and new reasons for us to be scared to be alone in the woods. In essence, to do what they do best. And I don’t need some old movie I know or a brand name I recognize to sell me on that. Just give me a good story, take me somewhere I’ve never been before. Do that, and I’ll always be right there, popcorn in hand, ready and willing to take a ride on the dark side.

Because I’m a horror fan. And that’s what we do.

Blair Witch opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow, September 16th.

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Editorials

Thanksgiving Flesh Feast: A Cannibal Holocaust Retrospective

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“Why ban films? If you don’t want to go watch something, don’t go. Don’t spend your money to watch it. To me it’s against your civil liberties. Censorship is against your human rights. It just takes a critic to exaggerate and say the film is over the top, it’s gruesome and full of terrible violence.” Words from legendary cinematographer Roberto Forges Davanzati on the special edition Blu-Ray of Cannibal Holocaust.

As you celebrate this holiday of stuffing your face full of delicious gooey goodies and cooked meats, let us look back at a feast for the ages that was buried in lawsuits, censorship, exploitation and even jail time for its creator. Cannibal Holocaust, one of the most infamous video nasties of all time, is not only one of the most gruesome and horrifying collection of images put to celluloid but also, in its own way, one of the most beautiful. Often times it’s notoriety as a horrid exploitation film overshadows the artistry that crafted it and the true message behind it.

First off, let’s look at the fact that this is truly the first found footage film. Its narrative is about four young documentarians who set out into the Amazon into an area dubbed “The Green Inferno” to find and document several primitive tribes of cannibals. While this narrative is the backbone of the movie opening up the film, this footage is not shown until the latter half. Professor Harold Munroe is assigned by the television studio that employed the documentarians to go into the Green Inferno himself to see if he can unravel the mystery of the youth’s disappearance or obtain the footage they filmed. Today we have found footage movies left and right but it’s rare we get a movie within a movie in this style.

Davanzati has talked about his different shooting styles for the time on the Blu-Ray for the film. Munroe’s section of the film was shot on 35MM film while the “found footage” shot by the documentarians is shot on 16MM film, giving a much grainier and dirty look to their footage. Not only that, but since the four youths within the film at all times had two 16MM cameras operating, Davanzati would often film the two camera men within the film and then switch around showing the point of view of each camera man within the found footage, which he states helped edit the movie as they shot it. The artistic decision to have two narratives wrap around each other like this are perfect antithesis to each other as Munroe’s footage shows a completely opposite depiction of the cannibals compared to the documentarian’s footage. This style informed a generation and still does, but has never been stylistically approached the same way.

Some may argue that regardless of the artistic vision and groundbreaking filmmaking style of both Davanzati and director Ruggero Deodato that it doesn’t matter, because what good is beautiful footage of despicable trash? How dare they film something so atrocious? Actor Robert Kerman can maybe answer that in a quote from an interview on the Cannibal Holocaust Blu-Ray. “What’s the difference between Cannibal Holocaust and Schindler’s List? Or the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan?” The world is full of horrible atrocious things and sometimes we don’t like to acknowledge them. To simply not acknowledge them would seem an injustice to the victims. In this case, what may offend might be the same reason audiences were offended about the Universal Monsters: the fact that perhaps we are the villains. Perhaps those victimized within Cannibal Holocaust are the titular cannibals.

Deodato opens the film with a reporter speaking about how far the world has come and how advanced we are as a civilization, that it is strange that indigenous tribes still exist in the jungles of the Green Inferno. All the while, during this news report on the savagery of those tribes, Deodato cleverly shows us the jungles of the modern world as the imagery put to this news cast foreshadows the film’s true intentions. It would be easy to assume the “Holocaust” in Cannibal Holocaust refers to the humans devoured by cannibals, when in reality, the holocaust is the devastation inflicted upon the cannibal tribes by the so-called “normal” humans. Deodato cleverly misleads the viewer showing off all-American kids as the documentarians. He quickly follows the opening with a scene of the Yacumo tribe devouring a human body as the Colombian soldiers gun them down and capture one of their tribe. It’s a brutal scene that depicts the Yacumo as monsters.

As Professor Munroe ventures into the Green Inferno with his Yacumo captive and guide, Chaco, it is discovered that the Yacumo tribe itself has had some hardship and pain. They are the more peaceful of the tribes who simply thrive and survive. Their Yacumo captive who was found devouring a human was doing so as part of a ceremonial practice to ward off evil spirits. Befriending the tribe, they venture deeper to find the two warring tribes that scare even the Yacumo: the Yanomamo (Tree People) and the Shamatari (Swamp People). While the Shamatari are depicted throughout as vile and dangerous, the Yamamomo befriend the professor and Chaco due to the pair aiding them against the former tribe.

Munroe and the Yanomamo friendship gives way to a very beautiful scene in the movie. Munroe disrobes himself completely and swims in the river naked with a group of Yanomamo women. There is nothing sexual about the scene, only curiosity and playful ignorant bliss. This sense of peace is elated by the score of Riz Ortolani, which permeates the entire film with melancholy melodies and themes of religious experiences. This scene in particular is boosted amazingly by his score.

Munroe’s journey is the audience’s point of view where we watch in horror and wonder at what these “cannibals” are capable of but, upon venturing further for ourselves with respect towards the tribes, we find perhaps there is more to these people than monstrosities. There are definitely horrible things the Yacumo and the Yamamomo commit, but our eyes are slightly opened as to why.

Enter the found footage aspect of the film, which is the core of Deodato’s message. The young documentarians headed by Alan are the true villains of the piece. While the indigenous peoples within idolize their gods and ways, this crew of documentarians only idolize the gods of entertainment and visceral mind rape. What’s worse is the discovery of the studio behind them condoning their efforts in order to get people to watch. The found footage approach descends into madness as Alan and his crew are responsible for the Yacumo’s problems that Munroe discovered when he arrived. We see them burning down the village and even having sex on the ashes of their homes in a horrifying shot that pans out to show the Yacumo watching in sorrow as they are huddled by the river for warmth. As the television executives watch this footage unfold it is stated, “The more you rape their senses, the happier they are.” It’s disgusting.

The footage goes on and gets progressively worse as Alan and his crew commit horrible acts of rape and violence that parallels the natives actions. But while the natives at least have a misguided sense of purpose, there is none for the documentarians. They set up a girl on a spike after they rape her just to have something visceral to film. “Watch it Alan, I’m shooting.” Alan has a smile on his face from the atrocity he’s committed, their excitement paralleled by Ortolani’s score. This scene plays on the typical thought of things we don’t understand being weird. As the filmmakers have no concept of what makes the Yanomamo tick or of their religious rites, they just create something ghastly. Because their audience will not understand it, they lump it in with their actual spiritual and cultural beliefs, making it all seem bereft of rhyme or reason, confusing audiences just to entertain.

“Keep rolling, we’re gonna get an Oscar for this!” The final act of found footage is more intense and more satisfying than any you can see. As one of the cameramen dies, they keep filming, that prize in their eyes with the camera lens as a separation from what’s before them. Their friend is no longer a person but a spectacle to be shot as he’s torn limb from limb and prepared to be eaten by the cannibals for their transgression. Who is worse, those that created the situation or those simply reacting to it? The Yanomamo stand triumphant over the interloper and, as stated in the beginning of the film, they eat him ceremonially in order to keep out the evil spirits of the white man. Each is taken down and each filmed. Debts paid in blood to the cannibals and
the white man’s gods of entertainment. The found footage has all been viewed as Munroe and the rest of the executives walk off, “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” 

True, there are very vile things depicted in this film. Rape, animal cruelty, extreme violence. It is definitely not for the squeamish. I, myself, cannot stand the animal violence as it shouldn’t be in the film and is lingered on for far too long. However, each scene of extremism beyond those shots serves a purpose in the film, juxtaposing the actions of the protagonists and antagonists, often times blurring the lines of those roles.

Watch this film with an open mind and a filmmaker’s thought process. You’ll see the amazing direction accompanied by brilliant and, at the time, never-before-seen cinematography. The score elevates the film with its beauty against the ugliness of the visuals. While the actions of many of the characters are disgusting, you have to admit the level of excellence each actor gives in their portrayal of these characters, especially the tribes.

We must not forget in these dark times not to judge the cultures of others before we truly understand them as people.

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First There Was Thanksgiving Night, Now There Is Dawn of Consumerism: Dawn of the Dead and Black Friday

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A feast gorged on dead, rotting flesh from animals massacred. Yet, there is still a hunger. A mass exodus of the walking dead flocks to a smorgasbord of prizes, each cheaper than the next.

Black Friday is here; and the masses hunger, flocking to their local malls and stores for comforts and trinkets. It’s what they crave every year, and nothing will get in their way. At least, that’s what George A. Romero taught us.

Black Friday is the biggest sales day of the year, and while we have a perfectly-depicted view of it in the opening of Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, it’s Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead that tells us of our wanton desire to bow to the altar of consumerism.

Ten years after changing the landscape of horror with his masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, George decided to make a sequel. In his own words, he wanted to make a more adventurous, comic book-style, colorful zombie film that would continue on into more films in his series. At the base of every film George made are themes on humanity.

At the time, giant indoor malls had just become the new big thing. Imagine, all of a sudden, there was a fortress-like building in every city and within its walls were tons of different stores, each one a new world to visit to obtain different items that could fulfill your needs. George saw this monolith as the base of his new film, an impenetrable citadel to hold up against the zombie hordes that would have everything you could ever want or need to survive. What George also saw were zombies in the types of people who would spend every day at the mall in search of what they believed to be their purpose finding some sort of happiness there. These two ideas combined to become the themes of Dawn of the Dead.

Once our main characters find the mall and hole up, they have to go through and purge it of the undead before they can claim it. In the immortal words of Peter, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” To these zombies, items within the mall, places to go waste their time, this is what it means to be alive to them. To recapture their humanity.

Once the mall is secured, our heroes go through taking anything and everything they’ve ever wanted in life. Now that they can just take the items they want and need, Peter and Stephen still go and rob the bank within the mall, taking all the money. In these scenes, Romero asks, are we so different? We all flock to things of our past we no longer need yet still want.

What makes us better than the undead if both zombie and human have a basic drive to want something we don’t need?

Romero loves to show how far humanity can sink in the eye of the apocalypse. The final act of Dawn of the Dead is pure chaos, and is honestly the perfect representation of Black Friday. Our heroes have been living in the mall for so long with everything they could ever desire or need that they are completely bored. They dine on exquisite foods and alcohol, play with diamonds and fine clothes, and even gamble with the riches of the mall, but what do you do when you have everything?

When you have it all, of course, people want to take it. A biker gang, led by none other than Tom Savini himself, assaults the mall, breaking through all the barriers our heroes have created, unleashing the zombies back into the mall. Savini has the look in his eye of a man ready to slay for anything in that mall, a look you can often see in real life on Black Friday.

Just as Savini brandishes his machete, so too do shoppers brandish their canes, purses, and other blunt objects ready to fight. The gang knocks over everything in their path, taking anything they want while killing the zombies in their way. Bikes mowing down zombies, engines revved. Just as shoppers rev the handles of their shopping carts ready to mow down others in their path. Our heroes must defend what’s theirs and fight the onslaught of the bikers. It’s pure chaos that cannot be stopped! If you’ve been in line for a sale on Black Friday, you know it’s every man for himself as people push to get the prize you came for. You will steamroll over another human to save those few dollars.

On this holiest of sales days, once you’ve fought the onslaught of zombie and human alike, perhaps you can take a seat and remember the themes and satire Romero gave us in his life with a viewing of Dawn of the Dead. More than anything you can learn from the mistakes of the living and undead within the film as people everywhere race to their local malls to purchase items that mean just as much to them in death as they did in life.

When there’s no more room in your gut for Thanksgiving…the consumers will walk Black Friday…

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My Neighbors Are Dead: The Best Horror Podcast You’re Not Listening To

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Halloween has come and gone, but Dread Central readers know that our horror lovin’ doesn’t end once the trick or treaters have gone to bed. Sure, we do go back to being the dastardly death-loving heathens looked down upon by polite society rather than the valuable fountains of horror movie knowledge sought after throughout October, but horror fans are an interesting bunch.

Our fandom is not centered around one specific world like Whovians, Potterheads, or Trekkies but rather a love of a genre that is varied and vast. And if the comments section of any of our articles has taught us anything, it’s that horror fans know just about everything there is to know about horror films. We all know of the heavy hitters like Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface, but what about the other characters that we weren’t privy to meet?

Enter: MY NEIGHBORS ARE DEAD.

My Neighbors Are Dead is a weekly improvised podcast in which host Adam Peacock interviews the lesser-known characters from your favorite horror films. The caterer from Damien’s party in The Omen couldn’t have had great business after serving food at the birthday of the Antichrist. And if you thought the theories in Room 237 were insane, just imagine what the directors pitched that weren’t accepted for the documentary!

Each week host Adam Peacock interviews some of the most skilled improv comics to tell “their side of the story” as unseen characters in our favorite horror films. This podcast is still relatively new, but it’s already been recommended by AV Club, Splitsider, Threadless, and now us. Meaning, if you start listening now, you’ll be able to show off your hipster street cred by knowing them “before they got famous.

Adam Peacock co-produces the show with fellow Chicago “Second City” alum Nate DuFort, and the two have brought along hours of entertainment that speaks directly to the hearts of horror fans everywhere. Each episode is around a half-hour, allowing the perfect time for binge-listening or a great distraction during your morning commute.

In no particular order, here are my Top 5 favorite episodes:

1) The Blair Witch Project with TJ Jagodowski (Listen Here!)

2) The Omen with Alan Linic (Listen Here!)

3) Poltergeist with Paul F. Tompkins and Tawny Newsome (Listen Here!)

4) Room 237 with Marty DeRosa and Sarah Shockey (Listen Here!)

5) It Follows with Jeff Murdoch (Listen Here!)

You can find My Neighbors Are Dead on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Playor wherever else you get your podcast fix.

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