FREAKY is no-holds-barred smart slasher fun with a twist

Time for a Happy Halloween Free-For-All!

It’s Saturday, October 31, so let’s have a Halloween Free-For-All!

I had an existential crisis yesterday.

It seems that an over-ardent editor for Wikipedia decided I am no longer a significant person and deleted my entry from the website. I’ve had a Wikipedia page for at least a decade, so it was super-weird that this guy decided I am not significant at this point. If you search my name on the site, there are hundreds of mentions of me. My co-writer for my films still has a page. It felt arbitrary and weird. If this was an episode of Black Mirror, I think I’d start vanishing a la Marty McFly right about now. If you are deleted from the official online encyclopedia, do you exist at all?

Thankfully, you guys are here, so at least for the moment, I can continue the illusion that I am a real person. Good thing, too, because there’s plenty to talk about today.

For example, I’m excited to see Jordan Peele sign on to produce a remake of The People Under The Stairs. Wes Craven has one of the most wildly uneven filmographies of any of the ‘70s masters of horror, and People Under The Stairs always struck me as one of his great “almosts.” It is flat-out amazing to me how many critics missed what Craven was doing the first time, but part of the problem was that he never quite pulled all of his big ideas together. It’s very much a movie with a subtext that is ripe for a new exploration, and Peele is the exact right person to do it. Between this and the Candyman remake he’s producing for Nia DaCosta, it seems like Peele is determined to claim these films that mattered to him as a young black genre fan and make a new case for why they matter. That’s awesome. That’s how I think horror fandom should work, with new titles entering the canon through reinterpretation.

Have you already watched the new episode of The Mandalorian? I’m not surprised to see that people started live-tweeting every surprise in the episode the split-second they could on Thursday night. There’s a reason Disney isn’t sending out advance episodes to anyone this year. The conversation begins the moment the episode starts streaming, and woe to anyone who can’t set aside the time to see it at midnight on a Thursday.

There are so few pop culture moments that we get to share simultaneously at this point, and this is a weird substitute. Instead of having a communal shared experience, social media becomes a minefield people have to navigate until they can see something, and the most hardcore also seem to be the most determined to detail the experience as loudly as possible. It’s something that seems to be baked into people. Last night, the very moment the special Netflix screening of Mank ended, there were at least a dozen critics who posted their reactions. I presume there were plenty of critics who weren’t sent that link who suddenly felt left out and who probably reached out to Netflix as a result. In their latest screening invite, they have language asking critics not to tweet “the moment it is assigned to your account.” They’re having to even build this into the embargo language at this point. It’s a sickness we have, this need to check in and be first and mark our territory.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter when you see something. Your reaction is going to be pinned to the moment you see it, whenever that is, and it doesn’t matter if that’s early or late or twenty years after something came out. We act like it matters, and publications spend enormous amounts of time and money competing to see who gets to show the first picture from something or the first interview with someone, and more and more often now, it’s still going to boil down to people getting around to it when and if they have a chance. Popular culture is far too fractured for us to truly share things simultaneously.

As a result, I think I’m done talking about the idea of “spoiler culture.” It seems like energy spent arguing about the wrong things entirely. You can’t regulate the way anyone else talks about something, and honestly, you shouldn’t try. There’s no point. If someone wants to jump on Twitter two minutes after midnight to type “BABY YODA HAS WINGS?!!!??!”, there’s no conversation about etiquette that’s going to persuade them not to do it. If anything, these moments are creating further fractions in the way we digest these things as a group. It drives people away from any kind of group conversation until they can catch up, and then by the time they’re ready, those early hardcore viewers are already on to the next thing.

Part of the problem these days is that we have no time to digest anything. Thanks to the way hype is 99% of the life cycle of the product, it doesn’t actually matter what anyone thinks of anything. All that matters is the selling of it. I am thrilled to have The Mandalorian back for a second season, but not because I plan to use it to drive traffic to my site and not because I’m going to strip it down to pieces for content. Rather, I’m excited because last year, the experience of watching that first season was one of the best overall experiences I’ve had as a Star Wars fan so far. It brought my family together to watch and discuss every episode, and it finally felt like a new piece of Star Wars that we could all learn together that was actually rewarding, not just a lesson in managing disappointment.

Thursday night, I decided to drive an hour each direction to attend a drive-in screening of an upcoming film because I didn’t want to sit the conversation out completely and there is no way I’m going to a regular theater for anything right now. And while I enjoyed the film, as you’ll read below, I do want to say that it’s not the same. I was acutely aware of how weird the whole thing was, and not knowing anyone else at the screening or interacting with anyone made it all kind of lonely. It made me feel more disconnected from theatrical moviegoing than just watching it at home would have, and I really don’t see this as any kind of replacement for the theatrical experience I have been missing powerfully since March.

LANDON LANDS ONE

I get why they’re releasing Freaky on Friday, November 13th, but I really wish people had the option to watch it this Halloween night because it is a delight.

Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day films were enjoyable horror movie riffs on Groundhog Day, with the second one playing a Back To The Future II-style game by deconstructing the first film while also expanding it. With his work on these as well as the Paranormal Activity series, he is clearly a clever filmmaker who understands how to play interesting variations on something familiar. Like it or not, that is a valuable skill set in today’s IP-driven studio landscape. Landon is built for 21st-century success, and I think Freaky is going to land hard with audiences.

If Happy Death Day was “just” a slasher movie riff on Groundhog Day, then Freaky is equally simple to pull apart as Freaky Friday plus Friday the 13th. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you actually execute on the idea, and that’s where Landon has proven to be a real talent. He takes these super-obvious ideas and leans into them, determined to wring every bit of entertainment out of these films that he can. Jessica Rothe was a big part of the formula for Happy Death Day, giving a winning, inventive performance that took every opportunity that script laid out. This time, he gives two performers that kind of opportunity, and they both more than rise to the occasion.

Kathryn Newton has done strong work in a number of films and television shows over the last few years, and she seems equally adept at comedy and drama. I liked her a lot in Blockers, for example, but this is the best role she’s had yet. She sets a tone for her character that Vince Vaughn picks up and runs with, and once she’s playing the Blissfield Butcher trapped in her body, she does a terrific job of it. I love how she constantly overestimates her body’s strength, having to adjust the way she’s attacking people because she suddenly doesn’t have the same mass. There’s a scene with Alan Ruck that is a particular highlight, not least because it’s Alan freaking Ruck fighting a teenage girl to the death.

The masterstroke here was casting Vince Vaughn as the Blissfield Butcher. He’s genuinely scary in the early scenes, and it’s easy to forget just how big Vaughn is in person. He’s a tree trunk. He’s ginormous. He seems absurdly scaled when you’re face to face with him, and that intense comic energy of his can easily read as threatening. So few filmmakers have taken full advantage of that. Even better, though, once Millie is stuck in his body, Vaughn manages to give a fall-down funny performance that is also honest and grounded. The best scene he has in the entire film is just a conversation in a discount store dressing room with Paula, Millie’s mom, who has no idea she’s talking to her daughter. It gives Millie a chance to be honest without any fear and it’s a transformative moment for her, right in the middle of all the chaos.

I was surprised to see that the film is far more slasher film than comedy. The trailers lean in the other direction, and I hope the audience is ready. It’s genuinely gory and there are several big kill scenes that make it clear that Landon really loves this subgenre. Thank god. There’s nothing worse than a slasher film made by someone who’s embarrassed to be making a slasher film. He doesn’t mash these things together to try to disguise that they’re slasher films. He does it to suddenly give new life and style to something that he cares about, and it feels like he’s developing a personal style on these films that is all his.

When he was making Paranormal Activity films, Landon figured out what people wanted from those movies. There’s a rhythm to the Paranormal Activity films. The scares are built a very specific way. You have to establish a certain pattern of shots and then disrupt that pattern in some supernatural way. I think franchise horror is, by and large, impossible to make scary. The more times you’re exposed to a monster or a menace of any kind, the less scary it gets. It’s the same problem with comedy franchises. Both comedy and horror depend largely on working against anticipation or playing with your anticipation, and the more times you do something, the less you’re able to surprise your audience in any significant way. What Landon figured out is that he had to add mythology to each new film, expanding the ideas and the universe, because otherwise there was really nothing to add. The scares themselves were all fundamentally the same idea. Now with these movies he’s making for Blumhouse, he seems to be finding a way to build all new energy around what are basically just slasher kills, and it feels fresh.

My only caveat here is that audiences should be warned: this is a real horror film. The ad campaign definitely skews a little on the light side, and I think audiences are always happier when they know what they’re getting. In this case, you’re getting something good and bloody, and I suspect it will launch another ongoing series for Landon since, in grand slasher movie tradition, he leaves that door wide open.

A LION IN WINTER

Sir Sean Connery has passed away at the age of 90, and the mere mention of him today on social media led me down a fairly complicated emotional process.

I think it’s safe to say he was one of the very first movie stars I recognized by name. There were a number of stars who were important to my parents and who were passed on to me by osmosis, and Connery was high on that list for my father. In time, I grew to have my own appreciation for his work and the various stages of his career. I think he is one of the great screen icons of masculinity.

I also think he was a wife beater. And I think he was a brutal misogynist.

I think it’s worth interrogating the way various filmmakers used him, the ways he did or didn’t fit into pop culture in different decades, and asking how his iconography did or didn’t pass along those attitudes to other men. My father is a profoundly decent man who has not only never raised a hand to my mother, he’s never raised his voice to her, either. My father is not a man who believes in violence as a solution to issues. He’s a big guy, and he’s physically capable, but he is gentle in all the best ways. His love of Sean Connery was about the movies, pure and simple, and even this morning when we spoke, he quietly acknowledged how troubling Connery’s personal life was even as we spoke about some of the memories we have based around his work.

That’s what I find so complicated about this particular moment. We have lost the ability to have nuanced conversations about anything right now, and I think it’s partially because of anxiety but it’s also because people feel powerless. It is so much easier to simply tear an icon down completely than it is to deal with our own difficult reactions to those things. These conversations have become very black and white, and the truth is that, more often, people are complicated and difficult and most likely disappointing on some level if you dig deeply into who they are. I have no doubt that I could go through a list of things that you love, whoever you are, and I could give you back a catalog of abhorrent behavior and attitudes attributable to the people who made that art. It’s inevitable. I’m not talking about financial support or ongoing active support for someone’s work. I’m talking about how the mere mention of certain people sets off these flurries of rabid antagonism, and that makes it impossible to talk about things. At some point, you have to either make some kind of peace with the idea that people are complicated or you have to just tap out of discussing art altogether because you’re not discussing the art anymore. Context matters, but context is never the entire conversation.

When I think of Sean Connery, I think of a certain type of ‘60s swagger. I think of a sort of brute force personality and charisma. I think of movies like The Man Who Would Be King and The Offence and Zardoz and The Hill and Name of the Rose. I think of the way Spielberg chose Connery to play Indiana Jones’s father and how meta-textual that was since Indiana Jones was literally created because Spielberg was told he wasn’t allowed to direct James Bond films. I think of The Untouchables and how many times I saw that film that summer and how many times I’ve quoted his oh-so-quotable dialogue from that film. I think of how everyone on the planet does an impression of Connery simply by adding the “sh” to things. He left a huge, indelible mark on pop culture, and he did it repeatedly. He had not just one comeback but many, continually reinventing himself and reclaiming his spot as an icon.

Mainly, though, I think of the way he decided when he was done. He decided that he was finished being in the public eye and he disappeared while he was still “Sean Connery.” I can’t even tell you when the last time I saw him was. I’m glad I never saw the frail and fragile version of Connery. Instead, he remains frozen in time now. I’m sure there are people who are happy to see men like him finally disappearing, and I don’t begrudge anyone their strong feelings about him. But saying that I have strong feelings about the iconography of Sean Connery is in no way an endorsement of his personal failings or a denial that they exist, and I wish it was possible to have that conversation, especially mere hours after the news breaks that someone died.

AND FINALLY…

Are you watching Primal at all? Do you even know what Primal is?

The bigger question is “How do you feel about animation?” If you think it’s only for children, then that’s fine. Primal isn’t a show for you. I know plenty of adults who have this very specific attitude, and I have long since learned not to bother contesting it. I love animation, and I think we live in an age of unprecedented variety in what’s available for animations fans worldwide.

I’m a snob about it, I confess. I watched A Creepshow Animated Special on Shudder and while I love the stories they adapted, I could barely make it through the episode. It’s more of a “motion comic” than it is an actual animated special, like an illustrated radio play, and I find myself annoyed by this limited animation stuff. Either do it or don’t. I hate it when animation leans entirely on the audio. Animation is a visual medium first, and I love it when people who are genuinely crazy about the art form are the ones who get put in charge of things.

Genndy Tartakovsky is a true believer. His work on Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, The Powerpuff Girls, and his original version of The Clone Wars already distinguishes him as one of the most talented animators of his generation, but Primal feels like something else altogether. Telling the story of Spear and Fang, a caveman and a Tyrannosaurus, who travel together through a strange and fantastical prehistoric landscape, Primal is an entirely non-verbal show. No dialogue at all. It’s amazing to see an animated show that is purely visual, entirely dependent on the staging and the performance. I never realized how much TV animation leans on the voice work, but when you see a show like this, it throws it all into sharp relief and becomes immediately apparent.

You should watch the show from the start. While there’s not a dense continuity overall, the first episode does set the show’s very high emotional stakes clearly by establishing how Spear and Fang ended up traveling together. Both of them are defined by profound loss, so this connection they have is more than just convenience. The first season was broken in half, with five episodes airing last year at this time and five episodes airing now. The cliffhanger between episodes five and six was brutal, and episode six felt like an important moment in the bond between Fang and Spear. Every episode since then has put that relationship to the test in extreme ways, and the world that Tartakovsky is creating around these two is bizarre and dangerous and constantly challenging. It reminds me a lot of Robert E. Howard’s work, but with dinosaurs thrown in for fun, and that pure pulp flavor is part of what I adore about the show.

It requires you to watch it with undivided attention. Everything about the show is meticulously designed. Every drawing created for the show is beautiful and expressive. Both Spear and Fang are perfectly designed and they give fantastic performances. They both communicate volumes through body language and the most subtle of facial expressions. This is a show that rewards you for your attention, throwing one extraordinary image after another at you. There’s an episode this season called “Plague of Madness” that ends with an exceptional haunting vision of death and horror, beautiful and terrible all at once, and the characters themselves seem to take a moment to just appreciate how strange this life can be, how something so potentially awful could culminate in something almost gorgeous.

I feel lucky to be watching the show every time it airs. It feels like a gift to animation fans and pulp adventure fans, and the news that there’s going to be a season two was a huge relief this week. You can see it on HBO Max or on Adult Swim, and I urge you to try it if you haven’t already done so. It’s also exciting that Tartakovsky has another series coming to HBO Max, now in development, an original adventure series called Unicorn: Warriors Eternal. I don’t know a thing about it beyond this art…

… and this description:

The new series follows a team of ancient heroes as they work together to protect the world from an unforeseen and ominous force. The heroes, who are originally unicorns, find themselves in the bodies of teenagers after a rude awakening that leaves their memories forgotten and powers weakened.

There aren’t many people who I give a blank check to artistically anymore, but Tartakovsky is on that list. He’s so smart, such a great storyteller, and so devoted to this particular medium that I would happily watch anything he makes for the rest of his career.

Yesterday was Friday, so let’s make this the Weekly Free-For-All. Let me ask you… what’s your favorite animated show? Not just right now… but ever. There’s no wrong answer. I’m just curious what you consider the canon. I also want to know what you’ve been watching and what you’re up to. How are you celebrating Halloween tonight? Any special spooky movies planned? Whatever’s on your mind, this is the place to share it.

The Weekly Free-For-All is a place to talk about anything, open to anyone. Just be decent to each other. Everything else goes.

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Image courtesy of Disney+/Lucasfilm
Image courtesy of Universal/Blumhouse
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Image courtesy of Cartoon Network