Gravid With Decay: Issue #7
This is Gravid With Decay, a short newsletter by John Tolva about all things horror.
The Blair Hitch Project, a screenplay I’m about to write
Vacations, picnics, and sunshine. Sticky sweat, bee stings, and electrical storms. It’s summertime, dear readers.
I’m going on an RV trip with some of my family soon. Logistically it’s the most complicated vacation planning I’ve ever done, largely because I’ve made it all unnecessarily so. And yet it’s the things not in my control — grizzly bears, mutinous teenagers, vehicle breakdown in a cell-free nowhere, a sewer tank dump gone horribly wrong — that most concerns. As research, naturally, I turned to horror movies to find out how bad an RV trip could truly become.
Homes may be the most important setting in horror — haunted, invaded, or the only “safe” place around. Cabins and campgrounds are a close second. So it makes sense that all you’d have to do is slap some wheels on a campground-bound house and you’re going places.
RV-themed (or at least -supported) horror is an entire sub-genre, you will not be surprised to read. There’s even at least one escape room that takes place inside an RV. Must do. Oh wait, my upcoming trip is that.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was probably my first introduction to an RV assailed by nasties. And its 2006 remake has an assault/crucifixion scene that I’d put in my top three most horrific moments in cinema. The southern Italian A Classic Horror Story (reviewed previously) also makes a recreational vehicle central to its tale, which, since I consider campers quintessentially American, is almost certainly a deliberate twist. And let’s not forget the boho psychic vampires of Doctor Sleep whose itinerant soul-sucking happens from a motorhome caravan.
Here I need to note an RV-adjacent film called Hell Van (2022). I suggest not watching this movie, though this will not be a problem for you as it’s not available anywhere. My daughter and I picked up the DVD directly from its enthusiastic filmmaker at a recent horrorcon. “Tell me about Hell Van. What’s the story?” I asked. The writer-director replied without a hint of irony: “It’s a van. From hell.” Full stop, nothing more. That response generated more enjoyment for me than any minute of the film’s two-hour runtime. We did get a cool air freshener for our roadtrip though.
They Come Knocking (2019, from Hulu’s Into the Dark series) is pretty much entirely about the horror of grief. A dad takes his two teenaged daughters on a roadtrip after the wife/mom dies of cancer. There are, of course, all kinds of feelings swirling around — guilt, sadness, apathy — and a general inability to express any of these effectively. So they manifest in other ways. Scary ways, you might say. And it all takes place in an RV. Anyone who has endured deep grief knows that its horror is monstrous so actual monsters don’t really seem like that much of a stretch. That this movie begins on Father’s Day which is when my roadtrip with two teenaged girls begins I will simply note here as entirely coincidental.
Race With The Devil (1975) was a recommendation from Ken of the excellent Heavy Leather Horror Show and is a movie that fully capitalizes on its setting in an RV. This comes, after all, from the heart of the 1970s when car chases and crazy highway stunts were all the rage. Two couples roadtripping from Texas to Colorado accidentally witness a Satanic sacrifice. Nothing but crazy driving sequences to escape the pentagram crowd from there on out. Peter Fonda does an excellent job as does Loretta Swit (of M.A.S.H. fame). The final scene, hoo boy, is unexpectedly creepy and bleak, at least for this era of horror filmmaking. I loved this movie, especially as it presages America’s full-blown Satanic panic by at least five years.
The Toybox (2021) has a great premise: not only does the whole movie take place in an RV, but the vehicle itself is haunted. Christine but bigger — with a few beloved haunted house tropes. With that and Denise Richards (Downers Grove represent!) you’d think it was a can’t-lose movie. And yet, it takes the L or at least struggles to a draw. No shown kills, OK fine, but the spectral haunt itself is not very original or terrifying either. Like many of the people who park at campgrounds, it’s probably best to wave politely at this one and move on.
Crownest (2012) is about a recreational abattoir. No really. It’s just a mobile slaughterhouse, found footage style, and its occupants terrorize a bunch of teenagers on a misguided journey. Basically, cabin-in-the-woods but the hell cabin follows them around without ever getting to their destination. Simple and effective.
And then there’s Motor Home Massacre (2005). Promising title, low-budget film, nigh unwatchable. I’m still not sure what happened in this movie. At least half of it takes place on a “set” out in front of a parked RV, The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs-style. (No disrespect to the JBB set. It’s perfect for what it is.) You’ll be an unhappy camper if you watch this.
We refer to the trailer for our upcoming journey as The Ampcamper, because it’s being towed by an electric vehicle. If we’re being precise, though, it should be called the Vampcamper because every time I attempt to do anything in or around it, I get cut and bleed on it. Bloodthirsty Camping Trailer. How’s that for a movie pitch?
Some other films I’ve seen in the past weeks and months, for your perusal and nightmares.
A Quiet Place Part II (2021) is a worthy sequel (and a sliver of prequel). It’s not spoiling anything to note that the infesting creatures in these films are blind and have super-hearing. And that our “hero” family has a daughter with deafness, which means they already know how to communicate silently without rousing the mayhem of the beasties. If anything I found this film even better-made that the original: incredibly tense, wonderful tight editing and cuts, obviously great sound design. The way total silence is used here is utterly petrifying. Ultimately this is a creature feature that takes the story in a new direction. What if the aliens’ exceptional hearing could be a liability as well as a strength?
I don't think anything can top the opening scene of the Evil Dead reboot (“I will rip your soul out, Daddy!”), but Evil Dead Rise (2023) is absolutely worth seeing. Mom Horror, which is new in this franchise, plus a little bit of Cronenberg/Lovecraft body horror. Attempts to do for Evil Dead what Poltergeist III tried (mostly failed) to do moving the suburbs to the Hancock. This one works. Great pacing, a little bit of world-building, and its brief Shining homage had me smiling ear to ear. Blood, so much blood.
Prefer your home invasion films with a bit of apocalypse? Knock At The Cabin (2023) is the flick for you. It all takes place in the un-killable horror setting of a cabin, obviously, but this one subverts the genre in that it is a story told entirely during the daytime. Cabin, yes. Spooky cabin, no. Good performances here and Mr. M. Night manages to also subvert our assumption that he’s gonna throw a massive twist in at the end. It ain’t that, but there is a pretty cool reveal.
What if you were playing one of the myriad murder mystery party games with a bunch of the most unlikeable people imaginable. And what — stay with me here — if it got way out of hand and people actually died. Well, for starters, one of these horrible people would probably be filming it for TikTok so you’d at least have footage. And one very dark comedy. You’d also have Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022) and a pleasing way to spend 90 minutes. Pleasing as in “I-hate-all-these-people-who-will-die-next?”
Not horror per se, more of a farcical romp, Cocaine Bear (2023) has gotten a lot of love of late. This film, based on the merest shred of truth (a bear did ingest a lethal amount of cocaine dropped from a plane in 1985), doesn’t trip the cringe circuit like, say, Sharknado, but it doesn’t play it entirely straight either. It’s just good fun rooting for a bear and her cubs jacked on blow taking out moronic humans. The kills are pretty great with one off the back of a truck for the record books too.
My family and I tried to keep the rompy farce fun going with The VelociPastor (2018). Stop and re-read that: VelociPastor. You kinda want to see it now, don’t you? Because none of it makes any sense whatsoever I’ll just lay it all out as a sequence of words: distraught priest being pursued by ninjas finds an enchanted artifact that turns him into a dragon (which is really a dinosaur) who then sets about killing criminals with the assistance of his prostitute sidekick. For what it is, this movie succeeds. And what is it exactly? A $36,000 film that uses an actual discarded high school dinosaur mascot costume for its protagonist. Sometimes when you have a title this good the movie it’s attached to doesn’t actually matter.
M3GAN (2022) is a topographic map of the uncanny valley. And possibly the perfect movie for our culture’s current panic about artificial intelligence. Part Child’s Play, part The Orphan, with a dash of Blade Runner. It seems there are two kinds of dolls in horror. Those that are cursed or possessed (Annabelle, the Poltergeist clown, etc) and those that are engineered to be real; which is to say, robots. I’ll take the supernatural over technological any day, but there are some admirably flesh-tingling scenes in this picture. But really, I have to assume that the the haunted ChatGPT films are already in pre-production.
Barbarian (2022) is a very fine film, possibly the best I’ve seen in this newsletter, and certainly the best I’ve seen about the trauma of intergenerational incest. The first act is the perfect mix of disturbing and believable and then … the rest of the movie, which proceeds in a direction which is fundamentally impossible to predict. Incredible performances from Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long. See this movie.
Finally found out what all the fuss is about with Art the Clown. He’s everywhere these days, including the centerpiece of at least three different tables at the horrorcon I visited recently. If you’re not familiar with Art, he’s a mute, ultra-violent gore machine with not a shred of backstory provided. The films he’s in — All Hallows’ Eve (2013), Terrifier, (2018), and Terrifier 2 (2022) — do seem like a new flavor of horror. It’s completely over-the-top with no apology given for being anything much more than carnage. And sometimes that’s all that’s needed. Just maybe not, you know, all in a row as I watched these. You’ll need some sort of cute bunny chaser or lobotomy afterwards if you do it that way.
Somehow Halloween Ends (2022) was a worse film than Halloween Kills and this from someone who is willing to cut the franchise an inordinate amount of slack, especially when Jamie Lee Curtis stars in any of its entries. But it was not good. OK, sure, the opening scene was shocking, but why introduce a completely new character and story arc at the end of the trilogy? Did the Halloween mythographers learn nothing from the swerve everything took with little Jamie Lloyd? Or from the bizarre derailment of Friday the 13th continuity by one Roy Burns? Laurie Strode deserves better than this.
Hellraiser (2022) proves that is possible to remake beloved 1980’s horror without ruining it. Grotesquely deformed demon priests who look like they just stepped out of an S&M club may no longer shock audiences, but the lore expansion of the puzzle box (and some super-gross kills) is reason enough to be impressed by this film. I loved some structure being given finally to what the various “solutions” of the box could be. Oh and yeah, female Pinhead is just as badass as you can imagine, irate fanboys be damned.
Did you know Marvel is dipping its toes in the refreshing pool of horror? How could it not be when you ask Sam Raimi to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? (Is not chainsaw-limbed Ash from Evil Dead a kind of Iron Man?) But what’s most exciting is Werewolf By Night (2022), Marvel’s love letter to Universal Classic Monsters (and its ilk). This one-shot TV special follows a bunch of monster hunters in a quest to become the new leader of the group. Presented in black-and-white and replete with practical effects this is not the MCU you’ve seen before. And apparently some of these monsters will figure in later story arcs. Thanks for that, Marvel.
That’ll do for now, friends. Hope you found at least one thing worth watching in this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a roadtrip to take. Horrifying roadside Americana, I’m coming for you.