Gravid With Decay: Issue #8
This is Gravid With Decay, a short newsletter by John Tolva about all things horror.
Halloween is over, friends, and while you may be at the end of a once-a-year dalliance with scary movies in the seasonal run-up to trick-or-treating I’m here to announce that Halloween is only the beginning of spooky season. The days are getting shorter, darker, and generally a lot colder. Earth is about to be covered in forgetful snow. We have several months of prime horror viewing ahead of us so make yourself comfortable.
A few weeks ago a remnant crew of pals from Chicago Horrorfests past and I trekked to Telluride, Colorado for the annual Telluride Horror Show. I’ve been to a few different film festivals and this one really stands out. Not only is the setting wickedly beautiful — Telluride is a classic old west town nestled (trapped?) in a box canyon limned by majestic peaks, but it happens just as the tree leaves are in the final raging-against stage of their multi-colored death. Just three theaters, all pretty intimate, all within easy walking distance, and a great selection of films — a few of which I review below. If you can make it out, I highly recommend the 2024 show the weekend of October 11-13. Let me know if you’re planning on it or have questions.
The Telluride film fest was the final stop on a short roadtrip through the American Southwest. One of my stops along the way was a visit to what I think is the last location on my list of sites in the US associated with the filming of The Shining. This classic of course was filmed almost entirely at Elstree Studios in northwest London, but the opening title sequence, exterior hotel establishing shots, and a bunch of production design research sites do exist on this side of the pond. My stop this time was the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, the only hotel that Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in. There are rumors that its interior design was used by production designers (Kubrick never visited — he barely left the UK at this point) as inspiration for some of the Overlook interiors, specifically the red bathroom, the Gold Room, and Lloyd’s bar. The bathroom is nowhere to be seen today (granted, this was 43+ years ago) and the Biltmore’s Gold Room is far too brightly illuminated by windows to be a direct influence. And yet, the deco details of the hotel lobby and bar do evoke some of the periodicity of the ballroom and bar in The Shining.
Links to photos from the Biltmore — and all the other Shining-related sites I’ve visited on this odd quest over the years — below:
The Arizona Biltmore (Phoenix, Arizona) — The Overlook Gold Room and bar inspiration
Going-To-The-Sun Road, Glacier National Park (Montana) — opening title sequence shots
The Stanley Hotel (Estes Park, Colorado) — inspiration for Stephen King’s original novel
The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park (California) — inspiration and templates for The Overlook interiors
The Timberline Hotel (Mount Hood, Oregon) — exterior shots of The Overlook
Kensington Apartments (Boulder, Colorado) — Torrance family apartment establishing shot
As long as we’re on The Shining let me give you two great links here instead of ending with them:
The Invisible Horror of the Shining — The intense complementarity of music and motion in Kubrick’s masterpiece. Mickey Mousing this is not.
Jack looking directly at the camera, briefly — A thread on Jack Torrance looking directly at the camera in The Shining for no good reason. It isn’t breaking the fourth wall so much as that the camera itself is one of The Overlook’s ghosts. Wait, what!?
One last note before the movie reviews. I’ve been lucky enough to be a participant in the Heavy Leather Horror Show podcast the last two weeks. (Possibly more if I don’t blow it.) I’ve mentioned this pod before; it got me through the entire pandemic and is still one of a very few must-listen weekly shows in my queue. This crew is mostly out of Salem, Massachusetts — led by Ken aka Sleazegrinder — and their knowledge of horror runs the full spectrum. The shows are tight and funny and always informative. And now I’m part of it. If you think that’s a good thing, listen up! If not, start with any episode before October 23 when I joined. Either way, if you’re reading this newsletter not under duress you’re gonna like this podcast. Listen to the Halloween show and subscribe here.
In Telluride I heard Suitable Flesh described as “Lovecraft without the racism”. It is this, thankfully, but mostly it is a love letter to The Re-Animator, one of my all-time favorite horror movies. (If you like body horror and utter perversion it’s probably one of yours too.) Here Heather Graham is perfectly cast as a therapist who gets far too mixed up with one of her patients, leading to a whole lot of body-swapping and mayhem. Her colleague bestie is played by Barbara Crampton (from Re-Animator among a dozen other horror classics). It’s sexy gory glory and often quite funny. I promise you will not see a better use of a vehicle backup camera in film ever. Strong recommend.
Ironically a movie call Falling Stars is a very slow burn, excelling mostly in capturing the overwhelming negative space of the desert West (to the horizon, to the skies) and how the human brain struggles to fill that in. Maybe that’s why so many tales of aliens and monsters (at least on late-night radio when I was growing up) broadcast from there. It’s a simple movie: falling stars (ahem, meteors) are witches coming down on their annual harvest of unsuspecting humans. Three brothers set off to view the burnt corpse of a witch who didn’t survive re-entry. The family dynamics — including a mother on the verge of lunacy — is the emotional engine here and when it stalls out there in the barren night, there’s zero roadside assistance. All kills in this film are quick and off-screen, instant abductions, which is quite effective: blink and you might miss the witchnapping. There’s a very promising subplot here that involves a radio DJ fielding phone calls from listeners hunkered down for harvest night, but it goes nowhere. My guess is that this was a budgetary shortfall rather than a narrative lapse as the screenwriting is taut and otherwise excellent.
The most interesting family in independent horror filmmaking (Adams!) returns with Where The Devil Roams. Scene: the freak show circuit of Depression-era America, where a family of three with a not-very-good act also moonlight as murderous thieves. When one of their capers goes wrong, the mute-but-she-can-sing daughter Eve steals a demonic sewing kit that can re-attach severed limbs. Their carnival act, naturally, gets a hell of a lot more interesting after that. Frankenstein as family drama. 19-year-old Zelda Adams (Eve) also co-directed Where the Devil Roams and took questions on stage in Telluride. How many films had you stitched together by age 19?
Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor is what happens when the filmmaker of an unexpected hit wants to make a different movie but the studio demands another found footage (read: inexpensive) sequel. Stephen Cognetti, the writer and director, admitted on stage in Telluride that he wanted to do a straight haunted house flick, shot traditionally. That’s not this, though it does yoke together the effective formula of the Hell Houses (“Did that mannequin just move?”) with some classic evil mansion tropes. There’s also a great sequence with a character on a videoconference that is my new favorite Zoom-based fright (sorry, Host, you’re now number two). Does this movie expand the lore meaningfully? I’m not so sure, though it does point it in a promising new direction (stay for the mid-credits scene).
May I simply note how under-appreciated the genre of short film is? I suppose you can find them online, but I only ever see them at fests. Three of real note here: Lollygag is a Greek short about being jealous of the leisurely life of The Boy Next Door. Who dies. And then rots in place. The Nolberto Method will make anyone who has been in a therapist’s office giggle uncomfortably. Lick that slug! Lastly, Bookworm (Ratón de biblioteca) is a Spanish short about a library with a ghostly patron who just quietly browses the stacks. Try to glimpse him directly and poof! he’s gone and the book drops to the ground. It’s very Hogwarts and cute. Until it isn’t.
Saw X seems like it should be a prequel, but it isn’t. It’s basically Saw 1.5. John Kramer is struggling with his worsening brain cancer and finds a secret medical treatment operating out of Mexico he believes will cure him. It’s all well-orchestrated quackery in the end, which of course puts Ol’ Jigsaw into kidnap-and-booby trap mode against everyone involved in the charlatanism. (How he’s able to engineer an entire factory’s worth of elaborate death gizmos almost instantly — in a country he’s only visiting — is never addressed.) It’s the most personal Saw, where Jigsaw has a vendetta against all the victims. It’s also the only Saw I can think of where a trap goes very wrong and snares Kramer himself (though admittedly I have not seen everything in the franchise). I wouldn’t normally have gone to see a film like this in a theater, but when my recovery group organized an outing to see it, I couldn’t refuse. Let’s take a group of people on the other side of a difficult, painful choice in life to watch a film about people presented with difficult, painful choices — most of whom choose poorly and die horrifically for it. That’s the psychological therapy of horror, folks.
Stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, stand, kneel, get in line, kneel, leave. If that sequence 1) is etched into your muscle memory and 2) gives you PTSD of any kind it means you’re a lapsed Catholic and that you will probably enjoy The Exorcist: Believer. Look, no sequel — almost no film — will ever top the original Exorcist, so let’s get that straight. But that doesn’t mean this sequel shouldn’t be seen. (And while we’re talking sequels: Exorcist III is a great movie.) Yes, we get Ellen Burstyn back in this film (she’s wonderful, though ultimately underused) and some other special surprises. The two girls possessed at once angle and the complications that arise from this are a welcome reimagining. But the real note is that exorcism has gone multi-faith here. It actually reads like the start of a joke: a Catholic priest, voodoo healer, Baptist minister, and Pentecostal preacher walk into a demon child’s bedroom. To me this heterodox crew is less about modern day inclusivity norms and more a statement on the failure of Catholicism in general. To explain this would be to spoil things so unless you see the film you’ll just have to … believe.
A lot of horror flicks these days pillory social media culture. It’s almost a worn-out device, honestly. But Influencer dials it up anyway and does a decent job of it, though it’s really more of cautionary tale of identity theft. Not great but watchable especially if you irrationally dislike Gen Z.
Possibly the best horror film of 2022, Pearl is worth it just to see Mia Goth doing Mia Goth things, which is to say everything excellently. Mia is Pearl living in rural Texas during the influenza outbreak of 1918 and wanting nothing so badly as to get the hell outta there. Like Nope this is horror paying homage to cinema per se, both in the lushness of its visuals but also in moviemaking itself being a driver of the plot. Pearl wants to be a star and she will not let anything, specifically anyone, stand in the way of her axe. Please see this movie (and its chronological sequel, X). There’s a third movie being planned as well.
If you’re a parent or a hater of kids the title alone of There’s Something Wrong With The Children should convince you it’s worth seeing. Two couples — one with two kids, the other thinking about having kids — are on a weekend trip. They’re out for a hike, find a creepy cave, explore it, kids are entranced by a light that the adults don’t see. Next morning: after the kids spend the night with the childless couple to give their parents some sexy time, there’s … something wrong with the children. Tension between the adults. Kids being cunning devils. Mayhem. There may be some deeper meaning here or it may simply be that this is a movie about how terrifying children are, full stop. Worth seeing as prophylaxis if you’re on the fence about child-rearing.
47 Meters Down was a pretty good movie in whatever the genre is called where the whole story takes place in a confined space (e.g. Buried in a coffin, Devil in an elevator, Rear Window in a single apartment room, etc). In the case of the 47 Meters Down it was two divers in a shark cage detached from its ship at rest at the bottom of the sea. Its sequel 47 Meters Down: Uncaged does not share this genre’s constraint and is simply a bunch of kids swimming through newly-discovered submerged ancient structures when they really shouldn’t be. All of it is recycled sharky jump scares. Worse, the sharks and kills are crappy CGI. A point or two added back for a pretty brutal and extended sequence once the survivors make their way back to the surface, traditionally the you’ve-made-it-moment when your horror movie involves scuba tanks. Not a great movie. Watch the original.
So much potential in a reboot of the Jeepers Creepers franchise. So much potential wasted on Jeepers Creepers Reborn. Direct your peepers elsewhere.
OK, yes, I am sucker for Catholic horror, but if a particular flavor of religion were ever made for frights this is it. Body-eating, blood-drinking, resurrection, stigmata, possession, exorcism … it’s all right there. I didn’t have super high expectations going into The Pope’s Exorcist, but this is an above-average possession flick. And, as far as I know it’s Russell Crowe’s first lead role in a horror film (let me know if I’m wrong about this, please). There is in fact an exorcist-in-chief in the Vatican, or at least there used to be, and that’s who Crowe plays here dispatched by Il Papa to investigate a family dealing with a demon. Why is this a job for the boss exorcist? Well that’s a reveal that I rather liked and which I will not spoil for you here. See if you catch Crowe’s nod to his gladiatorial past as he strolls through Rome.
Pitch to potential film investors: “OK, so our protagonist wakes up in a pit full of dead bodies. He has no memory of how he got there. The rest of the movie is him trying to figure that out and stay alive while other similarly-confused, amnesiac people are being hostile. It’s basically The Hangover set in an Open Grave.” Investors: [whispering to each other excitedly, then, loudly:] Is $20,000,000 enough and when do we start filming?
I guess I needed two movies to figure out that the titular nun in The Nun II isn’t the demon nun Valak but Sister Irene, our heroine. This may be because Valak-as-nun doesn’t get a lot of screen time in this one, though Valak manifests in a variety of other ghoulish ways. She’s got range, you see. The pervasive dread of the seemingly-abandoned convent in the original Nun is missing here as it is set in a fully operational boarding school. But this school’s maintenance guy is none other than Frenchie from the first film who seems to have brought a hitchhiking demon with him. The opening scene here is delightfully brutal and there’s some lore-building around Irene which may prove useful elsewhere in the Conjuring universe, but overall I didn’t love that Valak was on a quest to find an artifact. Felt very Lord of the Rings. Demon nuns don’t need things. They just need to be evil. C’mon now.
We all know from Sinister that Ethan Hawke is superb in a horror film, but can he be the baddie in one? Why yes he can and The Black Phone is proof. You should watch this movie. It’s a story of a Colorado town in the 1970’s suffering a string of child abductions. But it’s so much more than that as it layers in a psychic child and a supernatural phone that places collect calls from the recently departed. Though this is a complete film there’s an aspect of it that seems world-building, a fact that was confirmed (if only anecdotally) in the movie below.
V/H/S/85 is the sixth film (not counting spin-offs) in what I now regard as a venerable franchise. Sidenote: I’m always surprised at how many people who otherwise love horror are no fans of horror anthologies. I’m not one of these people. (Thanks, Creepshow!) V/H/S/85 may be the quintessential VHS movie as 1985 was the very height of movie cassette rental culture. As such VHS tapes in this one provide not only the distorted tracking aesthetic applied to everything, but also in a few segments are actually central to the plot. In addition to the anthology frame/interlude story, at least two of the segments intersect — a nice unifying touch. And the last full segment, “Dreamkill”, about a boy whose precognitive dreams transcribe themselves onto videotapes is apparently set in the same universe as The Black Phone, according to Scott Derrickson, director of both.
Since moving to Colorado I have been infatuated with fire lookout towers. Originally built in the early 20th century these structures were the primary ways the forest service scouted smoke from the initial stages of forest fires such that they could alert others via flashing mirrors, carrier pigeons, and later telephones. They were cold, unpowered, lonely, and way up on the summit of mountains. A very few of them are still in use believe it or not. Some decommissioned towers are rentable for overnight stays. OK so I’m fanboying fire lookout towers at this point, but doesn’t this all sound a great setting for a horror movie? If you agree you’re going to love Outpost, the story of a woman trying to overcome serious trauma by taking a volunteer stint for a few months alone in a tower. (Stay tuned for the next Gravid issue which reviews a film whose climactic confrontation happens atop a fire lookout tower!)
That’s all for this installment. Thanks for reading if you made it this far! Coming up next: the annual holiday/Christmas horror special issue, a personal favorite. Until then …