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The Horror of David Fincher’s Zodiac

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David Fincher’s Zodiac, which debuted in March of 2007, is a perfect example of blending genres. At its core, it’s a drama built on obsession. It’s also a police and newspaper procedural, family drama, and what we’re going to be looking at, effective horror film.

Fincher is not dishing out traditional horror fare. He terrifies us early to let us know the sheer brutality of the crimes. Once that is established, the film turns not to resolution, but to process. The scenes in which he does use horror elements are a masterclass in the genre. One of the most terrifying aspects of the crimes depicted is the randomness of them. Take for example…

The Lake Scene

The scene starts with a young couple picnicking at a lake. Part of what makes this scene so effective is that it takes place in broad daylight. Most horror scenes take place in the dark, usually with the villain jumping out from behind a corner or hiding in the shadows. This is all happening right in front of them.

At this point, we’ve seen some The Zodiac’s crimes earlier in the film. We know the impending doom for this couple, and there is nothing we can do about it. After being tied up and thinking this is a routine robbery, the male looks at The Zodiac’s gun and asks, “Just because people are going to ask, is that thing even loaded?” At this point the tension is basically bursting through our skin. The Zodiac shows him that the gun is indeed loaded, and we see the victims’ faces come to the realization of what we already knew. They are in real danger. They look at one another and try to convince themselves that everything is going to be all right. Just as that happens, The Zodiac pulls out a knife and stabs the couple repeatedly.

As mentioned, the most terrifying part of this was the complete randomness of it all. There’s a great line in The Strangers (2008) where the couple that is being brutalized asks their attackers why they’re doing this. “Because you were home,” one of the attackers replies. It’s the same for the couple at the lake. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it.

While the Lake Scene shows us horror through violence, there’s no better showcase of horror through suspense as…

The Basement Scene

This scene takes place towards the end of the film. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating a tip given to him that a man named Rick Marshall is The Zodiac. He meets at Bob Vaughn’s (Charles Fleischer) house to discuss the possibility. Graysmith points out that the handwriting on Marshall’s movie posters is the closest they’ve come to a match of The Zodiac’s handwriting. Vaughn’s reply is our first indication that something may be wrong. “Mr. Graysmith, I do the posters myself.

Vaughn then invites Graysmith into his basement. Graysmith’s reply sends shivers down our spines “Not many people have basements in California.” This is playing off our knowledge that one of The Zodiac’s letters mentioned having a basement. We are now Graysmith in this situation. Our judgment says we should get out of there, but our curiosity won’t allow us. Graysmith follows him to the basement where he believes he hears noises. He finally comes to his senses and gets out of the house.

In this scene, Fincher plays to our knowledge about the case. Like Graysmith, we’re simultaneously putting clues together and experiencing the terror of the situation. There’s no violence whatsoever, and it proves to be just as terrifying as any of the scenes depicting The Zodiac’s violent crimes.

Whether it’s through the use of violence or suspense, Zodiac’s horror scenes remain some of the greatest ever put on film.

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Here’s Why We Suspect Jason Voorhees is a Pot Farmer

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I’m not a Rastafarian or a Dead Head, but I still consider April 20th (4/20) a bona fide counter-cultural holiday worthy of celebration. The date has become synonymous with marijuana and coincides with concerts, “smoke-outs”, and even academic retrospectives worldwide. Indeed, societal mores have softened since the paranoid days of Reefer Madness, making “The Devil’s Herb” an appropriate topic for exploration.

In the spirit of 4/20, I’m highlighting a theory I’ve been considering over the past few years, one that connects the scourge of Camp Crystal Lake to a large-scale guerilla grow operation. It’s my assertion that Jason Voorhees is a pot farmer.

Jason’s relationship with marijuana (and those who partake) seems contrary to this theory, as stoners in Friday the 13th movies almost inevitably meet with the business end of a machete. There seems to be a moralistic agenda at play, one that punishes those who participate in illegal consumption of drugs—especially when they should be watching young campers who might be drowning in the lake.

This seems to be the case in the 2009 reboot, as well. Directed by Marcus Nispel from a script penned by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, Jason makes short work of several eager weed tokers (among others). This specific chapter of the Friday franchise, however, breaks with tradition in several ways; one could be Jason’s relationship with marijuana.

I invite all Friday fans and 4/20 enthusiasts to take this challenge: Re-watch 2009’s Friday the 13th accepting the premise that Jason is a weed farmer. As outlandish as it may sound at first, everything falls into place with surprising validity. Let’s review:

The opening act of Friday the 13th sees a group of hikers looking for a rumored field of marijuana, somewhere in the vicinity of Camp Crystal Lake. They tromp noisily through the woods, making them easy for Jason to notice. But he doesn’t make his first kill until a camper stumbles into the weed patch. If we accept that this is Jason’s crop, we see he only resorts to murder when someone’s caught in the act of theft. Jason’s decision to kill the rest of the campers (except for Whitney) may certainly have been an over-reaction, but he could have been acting under the assumption that they were all a potential threat to his business. The world of drugs can be ruthless after all.

The Carnage Begins

Related Article: 4/20 Massacre Review – Puff, Puff, Slash!

The next obvious question involves how the following group of victims ran afoul of Jason; while the film’s main batch of horny teen definitely includes stoners, none of them invaded the Voorhees “farm”. If Jason’s only motivation is protecting his crop from interlopers, why hack and slash the rich kids at the cabin? It all comes back to weed.

After the First Act, Jason’s next victim is the redneck working on a machine in the dilapidated barn. Immediately preceding his dispatch, he offers to sell Jenna and Clay some weed, some really good stuff that he claims he “found”. He’s obviously another thief (at least in Jason’s mind) which is why he was slaughtered. The fact that Clay and Jenna were seen with the marijuana burglar, unfortunately, made them guilty by association.

Jason’s not the sharpest tool in the shed but still, we can understand how he assumed these new arrivals were all after his crop (which was obviously just about ready to harvest). The kids wakeboarding on the lake: They had to go. Everyone else associated with Jenna: Assumed intruders who needed to be dealt with accordingly. Again, I agree Jason’s actions are extreme, but those operating guerilla grow operations aren’t your stereotypical happy hippies; even in real life, those attempting to infiltrate secret fields are likely to face physical danger.

So who are Jason’s clients? They obviously aren’t the tourists who briefly come and go. I propose they’re the elderly residents of Crystal Lake County: The woman who warned Clay “He just wants to be left alone,” for example. And the old man with the oxygen mask who almost rescued one of the teens: As soon as he saw Jason was on his trail, he sped off. This wasn’t because he was scared, necessarily; rather, he realized it was “business related”. Jason clearly supplied this fellow with marijuana to alleviate the pain of his lung cancer. The unseen, bedridden owner of the farm where Jason killed the redneck is also a client.

“Stay away from my crops.”

When you look at the life Jason lives in 2009’s Friday the 13th, you realize a source of income is necessary. Since he probably doesn’t deal with money, Jason most-likely barters with his customers. That’s how he has gasoline in his generator, light bulbs in his lair, food on his table, and how he landed that wicked machete sharpener.

Furthermore, Jason’s entire underground labyrinth wasn’t revealed and he certainly has enough room for an entire grow operation. The tunnels and rooms were surprisingly dry, making them the perfect place to dry and cure freshly-cultivated crops. Once dried and sealed, he could store stashes in a variety of locations. He could make clones, hybrids, and cultivate seeds in the offseason.

And while Jason would probably benefit from the calming, medicinal qualities of marijuana, he abides by the rules laid out by N.W.A in 1986: A dope man never gets high off his own supply.

I hope Shannon and Swift will be brave enough to one day reveal the truth. In the meantime, raise a bong to Mrs. Voorhees’ Baby Boy! And remember if you stumble across a wild marijuana field while hiking, leave that shit alone!

Happy 4/20!

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Brennan Went To Film School

Brennan Went to Film School: The Surprisingly Inspiring Message in Nightmare on Elm Street 4

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“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

The Elm Street franchise has a reputation for going downhill after Freddy gets funny, with most people fearing to venture past the high-water mark of the third film, Dream Warriors. But if there’s one Freddy film that sticks in my craw and makes me think about it more than any other, it’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.

Yes, the movie with the karate dude. The movie with the soul pizza. The movie that has multiple Dramarama needle drops. Let me explain.

If you’re not familiar, The Dream Master tells the story of Alice Johnson, as played by Lisa Wilcox, who is part of a new group of friends (there’s always a new group of friends) that surround the three survivors of the previous installment. She’s a sweet, shy girl who has a tendency for daydreaming in order to escape the mundane, awful realities of life with her abusive, alcoholic father.

When Freddy Krueger returns to continue his reign of terror (this involves a fire-pissing dog named Jason, don’t ask), Alice discovers that not only do people possess special powers in the dream world, but her particular power is to absorb the skills and abilities of her friends once they are killed. After they’re all dead, she becomes the Dream Master, the only person who has a chance of conquering Freddy once and for all. Or at least until they made three more sequels and a spin-off.

It might not seem like it at first, but Alice Johnson’s character arc is probably the most powerful in the franchise. In between the cockroach weight lifting and the time loops and the movie theater vortex is a genuinely powerful story of a young woman’s self-actualization in the face of trauma.

Alice starts the movie as a beaten-down, mousy wallflower who lets her more outgoing friends lead her thoughts and actions. In fact, she’s so bland and boring that you might even start to wonder why the movie even decided to have her as the protagonist. Her whole life seems to entail going to school, going to work at the local diner, and doing her best not to stand out.

But there’s one thing that already implies her potential to be a worthy adversary to the unstoppable dream demon: she already lives in a world of daydreams, so she and Freddy share the same domain. She’s only truly at home in the dream world, as it is the place that gives her the power to carry on with her day.

As the story progresses, we see Alice literally draw strength from her friends and eventually learn to cope with the hand she’s been dealt, until she is accomplished and powerful in her own right. Not only does she defeat Freddy, but she gains her own agency, fights back against her dad, and wins the heart of the hunky guy she’s been crushing on. It’s a radical, inspiring change worthy of any high school movie, even one where a man with a charred face drowns a kid in his own waterbed.

Now that’s all well and good, but there’s a visual metaphor at the center of this that drives everything home so powerfully that it’ll never detach its vise grip on my mind. In Alice’s room, she has a mirror that’s so covered with photos of her friends there’s hardly space to check the bags under her eyes. She has literally hidden herself behind the faces and personalities of those she loves.

But as they start to die off one by one, Alice removes their pictures from her mirror. Friend by friend, power by power, Freddy’s murder spree chips away the photo collage until all she’s left with is her own reflection. Once she has become complete and ready to face her demons on her own, she is finally able to look herself full in the face and find her own identity.

It’s a powerful image, and maybe the most subtle in director Renny Harlin’s entire career. And that’s why The Dream Master never strikes me as one of the worse entries of the franchise. Not only is it a fun, cheesy supernatural slasher, it’s an uplifting tale of a girl who deserves more finally learning to respect herself and using that very respect to change the world around her for the better. I think that’s a message we could all use, even if you have to dig a little bit to get it.


Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!


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Drinking With the Dread

Drinking With The Dread: Doom For The Masses Edition

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Doom“Matt. Before we actually do this, are you sure Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Doom is *the* hill you’d like to die on? What about the haters?”

Kill ’em all, let God sort them out.

Wait, sorry. You know that’s a direct quote from Dwayne Johnson’s “Sarge,” right? A tad bit aggressive if you don’t, so I apologize – but yes. “It me,” as the kids say. Revving up his chainsaw and charging into the industrial sci-fi hellscape that is 2005’s Doom. A movie you all seem to hate so vehemently given my Twitter interactions, and also my favorite collector’s edition steelbook in the ol’ blu-ray collection. “Yeah, because it’s so bad it’s” – NO. IT’S GENUINELY FUN, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU’VE HAD A GOOD AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL.

And thus another entry of Drinking With The Dread was spat unto the Earth.

Without argument, Doom is a no-brainer booze screening. Maybe when watching Bartkowiak’s critically-ravaged video game adaptation with a sniper’s eye for continuity it’s easy to scoff at. I get it – tactical teams would wear helmets, jump scares are plentiful, cheesy militant stereotypes bark orders – but that’s also what makes Doom such a riotous group experience. Deaths are ludicrous, monsters are bountiful and Mr. The Rock is off the damn chain with one-liners. Has Richard Brake ever been creepier (suck it, 31)? Karl Urban more begrudgingly badass (the mutant scientist gun-down)? THE DOOM EVER DOOMIER?!

Sarge’s platoon may be a rag-tag collection of Predator knockoffs, but they know how to own their roles (the holiest member’s tag is “Goat” because it’s typically a satanic symbol, get it?!). Self-mutilating when making mistakes, doping up on drugs to ease the Hell-on-Earth gloom that paints a dark shadow over solar lifestyles, they’re one wad of chewing tobacco away from being NPC recreations based on generic war boy forms, if only because Doom goes for style over substance when it comes to destruction. Hell Knights, Resident Evil lookin’ crawlers, zombified facility workers and all (prosthetic costumes hide veteran monster men Doug Jones and Brian Steele). There’s always danger and it’s never dull – from electric containment units to Portman’s sadistic potty demise.

Doom is an easy movie to knock – what video game adaptation isn’t – but cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts’s blend of seamless in-level perspectives with an otherwise fly-on-the-wall narrative is playful. References stick and payoffs ensure die hard Doomers see their favorites – BFG, duh – all set to a digitally-doomsday atmosphere. Blackness engulfs Bartkowiak’s restricted space colony maze of nanotechnology and animal laboratories, colorful in the hues of interstellar insurgency. You’re in, out and on with your day after 105 minutes of round burstin’ necro-annihilation – mission fucking accomplished you unappreciative heathens.

Highlight party moments include but are not limited to:

  • Pinky’s transformation.
  • Gratuitous BFG wanking.
  • Karl Urban’s FPS demon rampage.
  • The Rock isn’t supposed to die!
  • One committed rat impersonation.
  • Always check for explosives before you jump.
  • Clint Mansell’s crunchy, industrial rock score.
  • “Daddy’s home.”

Hope you’re locked and loaded, my Drinking With The Dread squad. It’s time for the Doom drinking game rules:

  1. Drink every time a squad member’s “codename” is spoken.
  2. Drink every time a squad member dies.
  3. Drink every time there’s a jump scare.
  4. Drink every time the BFG (ahem, “Big Fucking Gun”) is mentioned, fired – ‘eff it, drink for anything involving the BFG.
  5. Drink TWICE when Portman says/does something creepy.
  6. Drink TWICE whenever someone uses Ark transportation or passes through a nanowall.
  7. Take a SHOT when John Grimm aka “Reaper” goes into first-person mode.

Be warned, this drinking game is “Nightmare” level difficult. My test run clocked in at about four and a half cans of Narragansett along with a shot of mezcal for myself and a fellow Doom enthusiast (each). Our Friday plans to “pregame” before going out quickly morphed into a night in, our bellies filled with golden nectar from the shores of Pawtucket. Don’t worry, if I’m trying to make y’all watch Doom I’ll sure as hell get your buzz on. The rules line up oh-so-well with Reaper’s run-and-gun rampage. You’ll be feelin’ plenty good enough to root and scream along with his final showdown against Sarge – whose name you’ll *hate* before the night is over.

As always, drink responsibly – but if you’re watching Doom, you’re probably not very responsible to begin with so start suckin’ down some sudz, you space-nancy cockroach.

Can I get one final cheers for Doom? You can rant and rave about how unpractical or nonsensical it all may be, but Andrzej Bartkowiak made a damn entertaining “movie” (as Steven Spielberg would say, re: Ready Player One comments). One that traps characters between closing doors with hilarious repetition and unlocks one of cinema’s perviest, most skin-crawlingly-uncouth side characters in “Portman.” Pre-superbeef Dwayne Johnson lays waste to Mars’ worst kept DNA splicing secret, Karl Ubran’s scowl is on-point and Rosamund Pike one again makes you ask “Why isn’t Rosamund Pike in more movies?” Go suck an egg, internet. Doom rules.

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