Us (2019): The Monsters Are Due in America

Every once in a very long while, a film comes along that completely defies expectations. Too often, movies are over-hyped. It’s not that the film itself is bad, it’s just that every media outlet, every person with a Twitter account, and every online review keeps telling you it’s going to be the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen in your whole goddamn life.

All of this is not to say that Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature is indeed The Most Incredible Thing I’ve Ever Seen, but I’ve been sitting on this film for a week now, running it beginning to end through my mind repeatedly, trying desperately to remember every tiny piece of the intricate puzzle, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I walked away from a movie feeling just as, if not more, hyped about it as I did when I entered the theatre. No film is flawless and Us is no exception, but what imperfections it contains are relatively minor and do little to detract from the overall narrative.

Supported by exceptional direction, cinematography, and acting, Us is at once a surreal story about a family struggling to survive in an apocalyptic setting and a multi-layered commentary on some of the darker aspects of American society. The beauty of it is that, while there are certain concrete themes, the film’s overall message can be interpreted different ways by different people. That isn’t a sign of too many loose ends or clumsy storytelling. On the contrary, Us achieves what the likes of Lost ultimately failed to accomplish: it answers enough of the questions it asks to make a cohesive narrative, tying up the right plot strings so that the story ends with a sense of closure, while still leaving enough to the imagination to give us something to chew on once the credits roll. Peele wants his audience to think.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

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Top 7 Lesbian Vampire Films

Pride month may be over, but every month (every week, every day, every minute) is a good time to talk about That Gay Shit™. And today we’re talking about lesbian vampires. A niche subgenre often found at the intersection of horror, exploitation, and arthouse, the lesbian vampire film owes its existence to a little novella called Carmilla. With at least half the titles in the genre’s repertoire based on Le Fanu’s story in some form, many of them definitely follow a similar basic formula, play on similar tropes, and leave you with more Carmillas, Mircallas, and Marcillas than you can count. That isn’t to say you won’t find a variety of different films, ranging from the delightful to the downright awful, and I’m here to present you with seven of my personal favorites.

A brief disclaimer before we begin: it’s no secret that almost every lesbian vampire film in existence is problematic to some degree. They often carry with them the dubious lack of consent present in any sexual vampire narrative and then double down on the monstrous nature of the bloodsucker in question by portraying her queerness as predatory, deviant, and evil. She almost never survives the story, usually brought down by a man (or multiple men) to save the innocent human woman she has seduced and restore things to their rightful heterosexual, patriarchal order. On top of this, the vampire and her victim are often hyper-sexualized and put on display for the male gaze. You’re not going to find gold-tier quality representation in any of these movies.

All of that being said, it’s difficult to simply dismiss these films. They were portraying homosexuality in women during times when most mainstream media wouldn’t dare broach the subject. 1960’s Blood and Roses, a Carmilla adaptation, is one of the earliest instances of queerness in a female character being moved from subtext to the forefront of the narrative. And speaking from personal experience, stumbling upon the lesbian vampire subgenre as a confused young lesbian with almost no exposure to queerness in media of any kind, these films were hugely important for me. For better or worse, they hold a special place in my heart, even if, now that I’m older and (maybe) wiser, I can understand and critique their faults.

Now that that’s out of the way, on to the list!

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Hereditary (2018): and you thought your family had problems

(Spoiler free!)

There’s been a ton of hype surrounding Ari Aster’s Hereditary ever since it shocked viewers at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Reviewers have heralded it as a gamechanger, a breath of new life in a stale genre, not only the scariest horror film of the year but maybe one of the scariest of all time. In the months leading up to it’s full theatrical release this weekend, the buzz has grown to epic proportions and horror fans across the country wondered if the film itself could live up.

It does — mostly.

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Night of the Witch (2017)

It’s Women in Horror Month, so let’s shed a little light on a great woman-directed short film: Zena S. Dixon‘s short Night of the Witch.

The film opens on a young man walking alone at night. A voice-over reveals that this is part of a recurring dream, always the same, always with him wandering down the same dark sidewalk. “I don’t know where I’m going,” he says, “I just know I have to keep walking.”

He hears footsteps behind him, but as soon as he turns, as always, the footsteps cease and no one is there. When he continues on they start again, faster this time, and accompanied by low, sinister growling. He starts to run, abandoning the sidewalk and taking off into the bushes. The unseen assailant follows and the growling gets louder until you can almost feel whatever beast is lurking in the darkness breathing down our hero’s (and our own) neck.

The young man jolts awake in his apartment, visibly shaken by the nightmare. A uniform draped across the headboard of the bed reveals that he has served in the military — perhaps a veteran just returned home from overseas.

He breathes a sigh of relief that the dream is over only to freeze in fear a moment later: a black-clad figure hovers in the corner of this bedroom, presumably the titular witch and the monster that has been haunting his dreams. As he fights this supernatural intruder, the viewer is left to decide for themselves what is real and what is not.

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Black Christmas (1974)

Once upon a time, there was a little Halloween special called Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. First aired in 2004 and rerun for several years following, it counted down the most terrifying moments in movie history, from the silent era to the early 2000’s. I was 17 when it originally aired and, though I had grown up with horror movies, this list was directly responsible for expanding my horizons into new, uncharted territory. It introduced me to many films I had never heard of before, ranging from 1999’s Japanese tour de force Audition to the Universal classic The Black Cat, both of which would become personal favorites of mine. (That being said, it’s also responsible for my watching things like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes that I still, to this day, wish I could erase from my memory, but — well, no “best of” list is perfect.)

It also introduced me to a film called Black Christmas.

Given Black Christmas‘ reputation as essentially the godmother of the slasher genre, in which I was becoming completely entrenched at that age, it was one of the first films from Bravo’s countdown that I wanted to check off my list. At that time there was still a video rental place in town, and while they had already largely made the transition to DVD for the more recent movies, they still had an extensive VHS collection of films from the 70’s – 90’s. There I found Black Christmas and ran home to giddily consume this important piece of genre history.

It fucked me up.

This holiday weekend, thirteen years later, I watched it again for the first time since — and it still fucks me up.

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The Witches (1966)

Hammer’s The Witches is an odd film.

Based on the novel The Devil’s Own, written by Norah Lofts under pseudonym Peter Curtis, it follows a teacher to a small town that is under the thumb of witchcraft. Although The Witches came a couple of years ahead of the folk horror boom of the late 60’s/early 70’s, which brought us both fantastic films like The Wicker Man and overrated crap like Witchfinder General (fight me), it would be right at home in a collection of highlights of the genre. The film is set in the isolated English village of Heddaby, where it is quickly apparent all is not as it seems. I hesitate to compare this film too much to The Wicker Man, but there’s a definite Summerisle vibe to Heddaby — everyone’s a little too happy, a little too close-knit, and very obviously in on some big local secret. The only difference is the residents of Summerisle openly reveled in their paganism, whereas we’re made to wonder, for a while, which residents of Heddaby are the titular witches.

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Excision (2012): My Teen Angst has a Body Count

Excision is one of those films I’ve been meaning to watch for what feels like forever. I’ve heard about it from every horror fan I know and seen it on dozens of rec lists, but somehow I never got around to it until now. Admittedly, I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t live up to the hype; that turned out not to be the case, and though I felt like I had already heard so much about it, I was still taken by surprise by how good and in-your-face gruesome it is.

The film centers around Pauline, a misfit high school senior with a tense home life and an obsession with surgery. It’s immediately evident, from the film’s opening scene onward, that her fascination is darker and more complicated than a simple interest in medical science. Pauline’s visually elaborate sexual fantasies are filled with blood and mutilation and occasionally veer into necrophiliac territory. The scenes are grotesque and stunning from a visual point of view, and they leave you repulsed and wondering when — not if — Pauline’s fantasies are finally going to spill over into real life.

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