Thursday, June 30, 2011


In 1931, Fritz Lang made the first film ever about a serial killer with "M". In 1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot would win the rights to Pierre Boileau's novel, "She Who Was No More" over Alfred Hitchcock by a matter of hours and grant us with the classic, "DIABOLIQUE". 1960 marked the incredible leap forward into the horror genre with Hitchcock's "PSYCHO". In 1962, Michael Powell made "PEEPING TOM", where the killer films his murders. One decade later, two new filmmakers, Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven would coin the term "slasher film" with "THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT" (Tobe Hooper would define the term in '74 with "TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE"). In 1980, Sean Cunningham began a franchise of more than 10 films with "FRIDAY THE 13th" and in '84, Craven made a movie that cost under $1,000,000 called "A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET".

In the late 80's through the early 90's, horror was being drowned out and forgotten. Slasher serials had consecutive decreases in audience attendance by the time they would hit parts five and six and so on. Blue screen was a new technology helping birth epics like "WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT", "JURASSIC PARK" and "FORREST GUMP". Horror pictures for the most part are low budget and don't sell as many tickets as comedies or dramas, so the studios wouldn't waste money on them. Horror hit its repeat button in a desperate attempt to resurface. "GREMLINS" and "CRITTERS" worked, but people weren't buying "GHOULIES" or "MUNCHIES". Audiences flocked to see Carol Anne get abducted into the television in "POLTERGEIST", but didn't give a shit about her stuck in a mirror. And who could ever forget the lovable "PUMPKINHEAD" and "BASKET CASE"?

The 64th Academy Awards in '92 would put the dirty word, "horror" to rest by awarding "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS" with Best Picture. Jonathan Demme's masterpiece was a horror film up until the moment Elizabeth Taylor read the title out loud...then it was a "Thriller". Horror was being recognized as one step above pornography, and didn't have much to prove that generalization otherwise.


A young DREW BARRYMORE type roasts Jiffy-Pop over the kitchen stove.
A stack of SCARY MOVIES rest on the counter.
The telephone rings...
"SCREAM" was the scary movie fan boy that sat around watching repeats of slasher movies for five years, wondering what it would do if stranded on Elm Street or Crystal Lake, then carefully minding its steps through deductive reasoning. The film was smart and savvy to the slasher flicks that came before it, so much that they not only reference previous movies, they follow their strategies for survival. "SCREAM" was the revolution of mainstream horror. It's the reason why in 2011 the genre has not hit a dry patch for 15 years and is the best horror film of the 90's ("SILENCE OF THE LAMBS" is a "thriller", remember?).

"SCREAM" was the ultimate ode to the horror genre, but played with a new device that no slasher film had used previously...a cellular telephone. "SCREAM" showed executives that the audience could handle it's weight in brains, guts and sequels. With the greater access to Asian horror films, thanks to DVD, gore hounds were getting greater doses of blood in their living rooms and wanted more in their theaters. "HANNIBAL" was crowned the goriest mainstream horror movie by 2001, but wouldn't compare to what was coming next.

A small company called Lionsgate would take on the release of pictures other studios saw "too risky" because of content. Miramax's name was chased away from Kevin Smith's "DOGMA" by way of the Catholic Church, then becoming a Lionsgate rescue. It would be Rob Zombie's "HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES" that earned the company its respect from the gore hounds. The film was kicked out of Universal's studio lot and dismissed of release, only to be saved and honored by the little distributor out of Vancouver, British Columbia. Lionsgate then kept its title with releases like the "SAW" and "HOSTEL" series, as well as distributing foreign gore such as "THREE...EXTREMES" and "HIGH TENSION", making the 2000's, the bloodiest decade in the theaters.

Since 1996 there have been seven SAW's, six major remakes (FRIDAY THE 13th, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, DAWN OF THE DEAD and HALLOWEEN) five FINAL DESTINATION's, four SCREAM's, three WRONG TURN's, two HOSTEL's, and a HUMAN CENTIPEDE. There is no longer a horror movie worth just your weight in gore. It's worth the weight of the entire theater. The 2000's were an incredible decade for horror, crossing gross-out comedy with buckets of blood, to the latest term, "Torture Porn" and the number of serials a franchise will spawn are outdoing the numbers in the 80's.

It's when something subtle comes along that doesn't try to add to the pile of intestines on the floor or outnumber the amount of Jack-in-the-box scares, when audiences truly respond. "BLAIR WITCH PROJECT" and "PARANORMAL ACTIVITY" were box office phenomenons for horror films that cost less than $40 grand, combined. "28 DAYS LATER" single handedly rebooted the zombie genre, with a zombie film based on human emotion. And 8 years ago, before "SAW" began hacking off feet and "HOSTEL" charged you to kill, a smaller film would peak out into the horror universe. It wouldn't play on many screens, there would be no advertisements on television, few critics would review it and few people would see it. It bled originality from the frames, it had the power to scare, amuse, sadden and sympathize and would be quickly overlooked just a few months after its DVD release due to the world of "torture porn". Lucky McKee's "MAY" is not just a horror masterpiece, it's the best horror film of the last decade.

I started this entry with the intention to praise this masterwork with 13 paragraphs of poetry that express my utter love for the film, however, the great Scott Tobias beat me to it just a few weeks ago, here. The film is not quite a decade old, so a ten year retrospective wouldn't work, nor would dissecting it frame by frame or limb by limb. MAY reminds us that a film can work up to a final scene, where the 90 minutes that precede it aren't filler for just a good twist. "THE USUAL SUSPECTS" can be held accountable for that being a major anecdote to the "thriller" genre these days. That picture worked, however many that came after were a waste of time until the last few moments where we'd get the surprise. From, "Oh shit, it was the dead guy on the floor!" to "Oh...they're both the same person...again" (...thanks a lot, Fincher). Roger Ebert worked his Pulitzer Prize winning arrangement of words to justify the end of the picture, the best I've read in regards to "MAY" in his four star review. "There is a final shot that would get laughs in another kind of film", Ebert writes, " but "MAY" earns the right to it, and it works, and we understand it. "

The film can be endlessly compared with "FRANKENSTEIN" and Stephen King's "CARRIE" (which the lead, Angela Bettis played in a made for television remake), because of obvious similarities, but mostly because we side with "the monster", and after a trail of horrific events decide they aren't really a monster at all. It's exciting to return to "MAY" and watch talent we're so familiar with, from Jeremy Sisto to Anna Faris and realize what a generous addition to our generation of actors they are. More often than none we find them in forgettable roles, but "MAY" is so perfectly crafted from script to screen, we see them at the height of what they can do as actors. Especially the under appreciated star, Angela Bettis, who with the exception of the credits and the film's prologue, is in every single scene of the film. There is no other actor that could have brought the sympathy and life to this character than Bettis, and after seeing "MAY", her name alone is a draw factor to any picture she's in.

Bettis has become the DeNiro to director Lucky McKee's, Scorsese. 2006 was a busy year for them both. She appeared in McKee's "MASTERS OF HORROR" segment, "SICK GIRL" as the lead, voiced the eerie title character in McKee's overlooked "THE WOODS", and directed McKee in a film he penned, called "ROMAN", featuring Kristen Bell prior to her "SARAH MARSHALL" fame. "ROMAN" is a strong companion piece to "MAY", but was most interesting to see the brains behind my favorite horror film take on acting. To direct, one must know how to act. Again, with a quiet role that speaks loudest on the inside, McKee created a character we pass on the street everyday and don't think twice about. It takes a real acting bug to embody that character in a believable sense to where we understand them and their actions when invited into their dark lives.

When preparing for this essay/interview, Lucky was in the midst of touring his latest horror opus, co-written with famed horror author, Jack Ketchum called "THE WOMAN", co-starring the lovely Ms. Angela Bettis once again. The film stirred up a controversy at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, when an irate man deemed the film misogynistic [footage here]. At the time I had not seen the film, and wasn't able to ask any other questions besides the Sundance incident, so I kept it tidy with "MAY", but was surprised that this was the response to his new picture. "MAY" is a pro-woman horror film, and I've met more female fans of the picture than male. I was fortunate to attend a screening of Lucky's film in Los Angeles, and was even more relieved to see that it was in fact, not misogynistic. "THE WOMAN" I feel is going to be a heavily talked about picture in the horror circle and bring a lot more people to his earlier work. It demonstrates an incredible maturity as a filmmaker and story teller as well as the ability to scare with out jumping out of dark corners. This film, as different from "MAY" as it is, is similar in that it leaves you with a horror aftertaste. The events are scary and shocking as they unfold, but once it concludes, the credits roll and you walk out of the theater, the experience hits you...hard.

This happens for two reasons. The first being that "THE WOMAN" is an astonishingly original horror film, touching things that if in the wrong hands could be a mess. The second being that it's crafted by who can be undeniably deemed a "MASTER OF HORROR" and a genuine filmmaker. Lucky McKee understands people. He has clearly demonstrated through his work that he knows what we find scary, what we find weird, what we find sad and ironically funny. A filmmaker that deals with the subject matter Mr. McKee does and disregards these observations, will execute a poor film. Somewhere within the mainstream delight of hack and slash pictures, Rob Zombie, James Wan and Eli Roth have taken the lead and been labeled "The Splat Pack", upstaging talents that scare us without the buckets of blood like Ti West, Adam Green and Mr. McKee. I label these three as the Beat Poets of modern horror, with more to say and new ways of giving you the creeps. All six names are keeping this genre afloat in the present day, not just with ticket sales, but with originality. Horror has gone from being kept quiet to being honored in the time these individuals have been working and should be recognized as the bloody heroes they are. In closing this article on the blue collar genre, I leave you with a Q&A between myself and one of the greatest horror filmmakers we have, on the best horror film of the 2000's.

Angela Bettis (left) and Lucky McKee (right) on the set of "MAY".

Jonathan Keogh - The film really captures how lonely Los Angeles can be. Does any of May's feelings of isolation reflect your own?

Lucky McKee - I think they reflected the way I was feeling my first several years living in LA. In an extreme sense, of course. There is a lot of me in that character. I’m fortunate to have an emotional outlet in the work that I do.

J.K. - Was the part of May written specifically for Angela Bettis?

L.M. - No. It wasn’t. But she felt it was! That’s why we cast her.

- How important is it that there be humor in a horror film?

L.M. - It sure as hell helps. I’m not a big fan of movies that just play the same notes over and over again. It’s fun to have ups and downs, just like life.

J.K. - Who or what were some of the biggest influences on the picture?

- Mostly personal experience and ideas, but there is a healthy amount of Taxi Driver, Repulsion, Nirvana, John Waterhouse, Frankenstein, Hitchcock and so on.

J.K. - You said you listened to a lot of Nirvana when writing the script. Is there a particular song that makes you think of "MAY"?

L.M. - Basically the entire album IN UTERO. I love the raw sound, the raw emotion, and the images it paints in my head. That album really inspired me at a crucial time in my life. I was absolutely crushed when it all came to an end.

J.K. - Was the film religious to the script, or were there some things you let the talent bring to either the story or the dialogue?

L.M. - I am of the opinion that if something better comes up on set and it fits the story better than what’s written, then we should go for it. That being said, the movie is pretty damn close to the final screenplay. It was a very solid foundation to build on.

J.K. - May commits some horrific acts by the film's end, but we never pull away from her, if anything the audience understands why she does these things. Was it difficult to balance her sincerity and keep her from falling into a monster/slasher classification?

- May gets a lot of sympathy early on in the film. I think that helps the audience see her as a whole person, not just some nutjob. I’m very interested in showing any character in as many dimensions as possible. It’s easier for me to relate to them and understand them. I may not agree with the actions they take, but I must sympathize. I guess that comes across in the way we film it.

- When you look back at the film, how do you feel about it now as an established Filmmaker?

L.M. - I’m proud of the story, proud of the way the character has stayed with people. Of course, no one is going to be more critical of my own work than me, but I wouldn’t change a thing about that whole experience. Each film represents a learning experience. That was a huge one for me, that film.

- Being a major player in the horror genre and an official "Master of Horror", how do you feel about the direction the genre has taken in the last decade and where do you see it going?

L.M. - I think fans are starved for original horror. Like any genre it can be strangled by formula. For me, it’s a balance of making a story relatable and engaging without resorting to too much repetition and/or trendiness. Sometimes I succeed and other times I fail.