Cold, Dark and Bloody: Best Winter Horror Films

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Oh, shit, it’s cold? I had no idea, MAINSTREAM MEDIA, with all your footage of frozen landscapes. You can go fuck yourself with the frostbitten hand of one of your lowranking correspondents, Mainstream Media.

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I’m sorry, Mainstream Media, I didn’t mean that. I hate you for all the other reasons there are to hate you.

Oh, hey, Reader. Sorry about that. Forgot you were here for a second. Anyway, it’s cold and I wanted to write about my favorite winter horror movies. I was inspired in part by my morning commute, which was cold as balls and horrifying in its own traffic-y way, but also by my ill-fated attempt at watching Jack Frost (yeah, that one) last night.

Mini-Review Time: Jack Frost (1997) has the aesthetic of an early-90s Olsen Twins movie. The music and acting quality are eerily similar to the Twins’ holiday “classic” To Grandmother’s House We Go. But the similarity is basically the only eery thing about Jack Frost. I’m notoriously easy to scare–seriously, go read any other entry on this blog–and this movie never, ever got me. The problem is not that snowmen cannot be scary. They totally can (the 1998 film starring Michael Keaton is a great example of that). It’s that THIS snowman is not scary. Unlike successfully scary clowns, this iteration of Jack Frost fails to deviate from the soft and cuddly iteration of the trope they’re attempting to lampoon. Jack Frost looks exactly like the animated version of Frosty the Snowman that’s been on ABC Family’s Christmas rotation since ABC Family was Fox Family (obligatory “only 90s kids” reference). Unlike its poster, the horror snowman has no fangs or talons or bloodred eyes. You might as well try to make a horror movie about an evil s’more. Tell me it’s murderous all you want, I ain’t scared of no s’more that doesn’t have fangs. Or whatever. My comparison might have gotten a little off track. What I’m saying is that if horror filmmakers are attempting to highlight the terrifying aspects of the mundane or quaint, they first need to pervert it in some way. A “killer puppy” that looks exactly like an adorable little corgi is not scary. Something needs to be at least slightly off. The entire scary doll genre is a fine example of transforming a usually comforting item into a horrifying one with just a few tweaks. Anyway, Jack Frost is an Olsen Twins-esque movie with a random snowman rape scene thrown in. I know what I just said makes you want to watch it, but don’t. Rewatch Troll 2 instead.

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So, what winter horror movies should you watch instead? This is a bit of a tough proposition, because holiday horror movies–which are generally shitty in an unfun way–are included in the winter horror subgenre. But littered among the New Year’s Evils and Black Christmases are the occasional gems.

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I recommend watching the following movies on a snowy afternoon by the fire–whether it be in a fireplace or the skull of your vanquished enemy or just Nic Cage’s face.

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FOUR ESSENTIAL WINTER HORROR MOVIES

1. My Bloody Valentine (1981 and 2009)

I might be cheating a bit, because the most wintery these movies get is that mostly characters wear light jackets, but they’re set in February, so they technically count. Both versions are among my favorite slasher flicks, and the latter is, I think, one of the better arguments for more 3D horror movies. Side note: I don’t get why 3D has turned into the kid-friendly cinematic technology. Like, the immersive quality it lends to films is better suited to the terrifying experience of something like My Bloody Valentine or even Gravity than it is to, say, Cars 2. Oh, cool, Larry the Cable Guy in all three glorious dimensions. Fantastic.

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What I really want is a pick-ax thrown at my face. Thanks for accommodating that desire, My Bloody Valentine.

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Also: there’s an insanely long nude scene in the 2009 remake that–according to some people, myself included–parodies gratuitous female nudity in horror. Even if you don’t care to think about its contributions to discussions of the female body in horror, you will at least enjoy both versions on a primal, scary-stab-comedy-horror level.

2. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

I love Scary Santa movies. There’s something creepy about a nocturnal creature who watches you sleep and judges you that I feel hasn’t become nearly enough of a “thing” in horror movies. Scary clowns are all over the place, but scary Santa has just as much potential for massacring children.

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This particular scary Santa movie is Finnish, smart and terrifying–in that order. The haggard inspiration of the Santa myth’s first appearance still gives me goosebumps.

3. The Shining (1980)

I will happily quibble with you about whether Kubrik’s classic interpretation of Stephen King’s novel should even count as horror, because it transcends a bit into mainstream, psychological thriller. But I do think this movie is perfectly suited to a list of the best winter horror films because it magnifies the characteristics of winter that are, if you think about them, pretty terrifying. The Shining emphasizes the darkness, the biting cold and the claustrophobia of winter to heighten the horrors that transpire in the Overlook. They also make Jack Torrance’s descent into madness relatable from a seasonal perspective. Doesn’t everyone go a little nuts this time of year?

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4. Dead Snow (2009) [BTW, I’m noticing that 2009-2010 was a really good span of enjoyable winter horror movies.]

Dead Snow is another foreign language horror movie, but fits nicely into the classic American “horny youngsters in an isolated cabin” genre. The “evil dead” in this instance, however, are frozen Nazi zombies. Yay!

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Beyond the pure delight of a bunch of wholesome Norwegians battling SS corpses, there’s a memorable outhouse sex scene that–luckily for me, but unluckily for you scat-enthusiasts out there–avoids poop imagery. This is pretty much how you know this is an imported horror movie, because an American version wouldn’t be able to restrain itself from making at least one shit joke/reference. This land is your land, this land is my land, etc.

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Tim Curry Ruined My Childhood: A Guide to Evil Clown Movies

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I watched Killer Klowns from Outer Space this weekend. I had eyed it warily for weeks as it sat in my Netflix Queue, intrigued by the campy title but also anxious about the titular clowns. “Not yet,” I would mutter, gazing at the screen from my pantsless couch cocoon. “Not yet.”

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You see, I watched the miniseries of Stephen King’s It one Halloween in the mid-90s and have dreaded clowns ever since. It’s a tale as old as time. Civilian Tim Curry is, I would argue, already way too creepy for children. When you tart him up in clown makeup and tell him to go around devouring people… he’s just so scary. “How scary is he?!” the obliging audience asks. Tim Curry in It isso scary that for years I couldn’t take a shower without first checking the drain for clown occupancy. (The killer clown emerges from shower drains; it’s not that weird an instinct.)

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I eventually gathered the courage to watch Killer Klowns (by courage, I mean “alcohol” and “my boyfriend”), and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s pretty fun and, more importantly, not at all scary, for several reasons: one, the movie is really silly (which I probably should have gathered from the title); two, the clownswear masks, which for some reason minimizes the terror factor; three, the clowns speak some squeaky alien language (compare this to Tim Curry’s soul-vibrating English accent and the alien clowns seem more like Furbies than Ancient Forces of Darkness).

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What makes Curry’siteration of the Evil Clown is how uncannily like a real clown he can be, jovial while also a bit too odd. Then the claws come out. The villains of Killer Klowns are unrecognizable mounds of rubber. They look like someone painted a clown face on a stack of mashed potatoes, rendering the film more science fiction than horror.

What It gets to the heart of is the horror in the everyday, the terrifying forces threatening to burst from within the mundane. Listed below are a few of the key elements of a successful use of the Evil Clown trope.

1. No real back story or motive

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Killer clowns are way scarier if they don’t have some element of mystery to them; I think Pennywise is far more terrifying when you don’t know that the clown is only one facet of an inter-dimensional predatory life form. I haven’t seen Klown Kamp Massacre (apparently Friday the 13th with clowns), but knowing that the killer clown in this movie kills because he was failing clown college makes the whole thing more silly than scary.

2. Scary-Ass Teeth

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I mean, come on. Toothy smiles are scarier than any other facial expression.

3. Child victims

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Evil clowns are at their scariest when they terrorize children. It’s something about their abuse of that vulnerability that cuts through all of your carefully curated, adult cynicism and makes you regress to a primal fear.

4. Dangerous, but not rabid

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Does Pennywise occasionally grow fangs and claws? Yes, but only after charming you into getting close. Clowns foaming at the mouth are boring. There’s no art there. You know what’s scarier? Fucking Hannibal Lecter in clown make-up, artfully waiting to pounce.

Lady Parts: A Brief Guide to the Sleepaway Camp Franchise

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The blog is a little late today, because in my first draft (which would have been on time) I made the mistake of trying to review the Sleepaway Camp franchise with a focus on the first film. That’s a fool’s errand for several reasons:

A) It has been reviewed with more skill and humor elsewhere (How Did This Get Made? and others).

B) Subjecting Sleepaway Camp to an academic consideration of the cultural perception of trans* people is like dissecting an overcooked macaroni noodle. It gives far too much credit to this terrible film that is less a product of deep-seated cultural attitudes than the singular bizarre vision of the director. Transphobia in film is totally a thing, but Sleepaway Camp is unworthy of being dissected as an example of it.

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C) The film’s cock-driven twist ending (spoilers, I guess, sorry) is so distracting it pulls any review of the movie in like the dick has a gravitational field. My last attempt at reviewing the movie ended with the profound (?!?!?) statement: “I bet Justin Bieber or One Direction or even Twilight would have a fraction of their fans if there were a cinematic avenue for tweens to sate their frustrating cock lust. Down with Justin Bieber! Up with (horror movie) dick!”

[The thing my boyfriend took away from this was that Justin Bieber was kind of a dated reference. But I’m really quite hip to what the tweens are SnapCatting on their mobiles.]

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So… yeah, I’m rewriting this. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I’m just going to focus on the Sleepaway Camp movies I actually like: Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland. Sleepaway Camp 4 was apparently just shot as porn and then retroactively given the Sleepaway Camp title. Sleepaway Camp 5 is by the same director as the first film and is unavailable to stream on YouTube, two great reasons not to bother with it.

Included below are my collective five favorite moments from both films. Wanna know the plot? Angela once had a penis, but now doesn’t, but it doesn’t really come up ever (even though it motivated her to kill in the first film), and now she’s the most enthusiastic camp counselor ever who deals with unenthusiastic/slutty/profane campers by murdering them. That’s not even a spoiler because you know who the killer is from the beginning. My favorite thing about these movies is the utter lack of suspense. You never ask who is going to kill who when. The answers are Angela and everyone and right now, duh. Props to Pamela Springsteen for her portrayal of one of my all-time favorite horror villains.

5. In Sleepaway Camp 3, Angela kills basically the entire population of the camp, but because she does it one at a time, no one really notices.

I don’t think you understand. Like, half the camp has disappeared and the main counselor is, like, “Hey,  that’s weird, I haven’t seen half the campers for a while. What’s happening with all the kids?” and Angela says, “Oh, yeah, they were bad so I sent them home,” and he’s like, “Angela!” *sitcom-y finger wag* But then eventually she kills him, too.

4. “It’s a drill!”

Springsteen’s delivery is amazing. The snotty camper is all, *eyeroll* “What are you looking for, a gun?” and then Angela just power drills a hole in her dumb chest.

3. The recurring use of the “I’m a Happy Camper” song

Haunting. I want a techno remix, please. Someone fetch me Skrillex.

2. The worst way to die of all the worst possible ways to die:

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Yes, drowning in an old outhouse toilet full of leeches is at least in my top 5 fears, although it probably ranks behind going to a party attended by all of my ex-boyfriends.

1. 30 year old campers and 9 year old campers

In the proud tradition of the first Sleepaway Camp film, these movies feature teens played by grown ass adults, but also actual teen actors, who look like babies compared to their costars. And they flirt with each other in between murders. It’s all very off-putting and yet hilarious, like the Sleepaway Camp franchise as a whole.

Happy Halloween, y’all. Take a moment while you’re creeping and spooking to pour one out for Sleepaway Camp, will you?

A Helpful Guide to Your Halloween Movie Marathon Because You’re a Big Kid Now Dammit

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Aw, shucks, you’re too old to trick or treat? Too unAmerican? Too… European? I bet you’re too European.

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Anyway, you’ve found your way to this blog post because your plans for this Halloween include a couch and cinematic entertainment, not super grody pub crawls or begging for candy or leaving your house. I love Halloween, but I’ve indulged in the time-honored tradition of movie-couching this lovely holiday since I was but a wee, cynical tween. When I was in 6th grade, I dressed up like Fairuza Balk from The Craft, but instead of joining my little brother in trick-or-treating I stayed home alone, watching Halloween movies and grumpily handing out candy. It was awesome, and it’s a tradition I’ve more or less honored every year since, with the exceptions of college Halloween party shitshows THAT DO NOT BEAR MENTIONING.

So, who better than me to guide you through the sometimes-depressing, mostly fun experience of the Halloween Movie Marathon? Let me be the Gothy-Tween-Virgil to your Zombie-Dante.

Rule #1: Dress up.

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I don’t care if you’re alone, if you’re movie-marathoning because you weren’t invited anywhere, if LITERALLY NO ONE will be seeing your costume but you. Dressing up will make you feel better and set the appropriate mood for the movie marathon. If you don’t dress up, then it’s just a horror movie marathon, and you can have those year round. And, if your costume is particularly cool and/or adorable and/or hilariously awful, you can share it with all your social media friends. See, in the internet age, you’re NEVER ALONE.

Rule #2: Lights out or GTFO.

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What do you mean, you’ll get scared if you do this movie marathon in the dark? Letting yourself get scared is essential to this cinematic experience. To allow yourself to be frightened by these movies is to momentarily loosen your grip on reality, to pack away your ever-present cynicism and, for just a moment, to believe in magic. Super creepy blood magic.

Rule #3: Refreshments.

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I’m not going to dictate that you have popcorn balls and candy corn at your viewing (ALTHOUGH IF YOU INVITE ME, YOU FUCKING BETTER). I will recommend you have your favorite seasonal treat available in abundance. Pumpkin ale? Sure. BooBerry cereal? Also fine. And if you dislike most seasonal snacks, nibble what you like. The upside of intentionally discomforting yourself with horror movies is that you get to stuff your face with comfort food.

Rule #4: Keep social networking to a minimum, unless you’re doing more sharing than consuming.

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For a couple of reasons: A) Parties and pub crawls always look way more fun on Instagram than they actually are, so if you’re movie-marathoning alone, it might bum you out. But no fear! Just don’t look at other people’s stuff. Post your own. You’re having way more fun, I promise. And B) If you’re doing this movie marathoning as a group, it’s super distracting for one person to be on their phone all night just browsing Tumblr. C’mon, don’t be rude.

Rule #5: Alternate between Hardcore Horror and Horror Comedies

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Consider this system a palate cleanser. Scary movies will be scarier after a comedy, comedies will be funnier after watching someone saw off their own hand.

Some recommendations:

A Quadrilogy of Classics: Dawn of the Dead, Shawn of the Dead, Halloween, Ghostbusters

Or

The Cabin Quadrilogy: Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2, Evil Dead (2013), Cabin in the Woods

Or

Totally 90s Quadrilogy: I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, The Faculty, Idle Hands

Thanks, and have a spooky Halloween, y’all.

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Tiny Jaws: Is Piranha Parody or Just Inept?

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(This week’s post is a generous contribution from the inimitable Brent Williams, my movie-watching partner. Go follow him on Twitter @twelvepointfont in anticipation of the day he actually uses it. -Sarah the Squeam Queen)

I find myself conflicted on what to say about Piranha. Wikipedia tells me that it me that it was a parody of Jaws, but It never felt self-aware enough for me to think of it as a Parody. I laughed at it in much the same way I would laugh at a Parody. There were over-the-top characters and a situation not entirely dissimilar to Jaws, but I never felt that Jaws was the subject of this movie. Piranha definitely felt like its own bit of camp.

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Not that kind of camp

The movie starts with the customary expendable teenage couple breaking into an abandoned military facility, much as we all have done once or twice in our youth. The pair then proceeds to swim in what is questionably water. The boyfriend waits until they’re already swimming in the green liquid to raise the idea that it may be sewage. This being a monster movie about piranhas, you can probably guess how the rest of the scene goes.

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They die, and give our female protagonist (who is good at finding people and wants to find the aforementioned couple for reasons I’m too lazy to look up) a reason to head into the mountains near the abandoned military facility and stumble upon a our male protagonist, named Paul.

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Paul is an unreliable drunk, but Maggie, the female protagonist I mentioned earlier, knows that he is just the man to help her find the missing couple. As it turns out, Maggie is right, and Paul’s alcoholism is never an issue. Paul is one of the most capable characters in the movie. He has shared custody of his daughter, and by the end of the movie, he saves a lot of lives. The early scenes establishing him as a drunk only really serve to justify the fact that some people are assholes toward Paul.

Maggie and Paul arrive at the abandoned military facility and find a lab filled with tanks of mutant fish. There’s a claymated mutant thing watching them from the corners that you surely think will be reincorporated or at least be some sort of variation of the movie’s main monsters, but no. The piranhas of this movie are just silhouettes of normal piranhas. Clearly, there is something more interesting going on in this lab, and I want to see that movie.

Paul (or maybe Maggie) hits a lever to drain the green water from the pool where the teenagers were eaten. Seeing this, a man attacks. He’s subdued and we learn that he is a scientist. This a very interesting character, because we learn that he’s just been fucking around with mutant Piranha all by himself ever since the Vietnam War ended. He’s made them more and more dangerous without any real reason for doing so. Also, he’s put these unnecessarily deadly fish in a pool that drains to the river. So, now the piranha are free and headed downriver toward the camp where Paul’s daughter is. Paul, Maggie and the scientist set off down the river on a raft to warn people about the Piranhas. For some reason, all non-piranha-infested means of transportation aren’t an option. Calling ahead to the camp fails because the head counselor is one of those assholes I mentioned earlier.

Paul’s friend Jack lives downriver, and we see him on the edge of his dock with his feet in the water, drunk and telling jokes to his dog. When The Piranhas attack him, he screams and screams, but makes no effort to pull his feet from the water. When Paul, Maggie and the scientist (a new band name I’m considering) find him, he’s dragged himself from the water, but he’s dead, and there’s nothing but bone where his lower legs once were. This kind of horrifying power is never seen again.

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Shortly after finding Jack, the scientist throws himself in the water to pull a kid off of a capsized canoe being attacked by piranhas. Honestly, when I saw what the scientist was doing, I thought that he was trying to kill himself and the kid. Those same piranhas stripped Jack’s leg of flesh in the time it took him to lift them from the water, but the scientist manages to swim thirty feet and drag himself and the kid through the water and onto the raft. He does die, but the kid doesn’t seem to get a scratch on him.

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Kids must be invincible in this universe in the same way they are in Skyrim, because when the fish do eventually get to the camp (which happens after some nonsense with the military and a dam), the kids spend five minutes flopping around five feet from the shore without much injury to any of them. The only casualty from the attack is a camp counselor who is somehow pulled underwater by tiny fish.

Things work out fine for the kids, but Maggie and Paul soon have to save a resort, because the owner is the type of idiotic movie villain who ignores the monster until it’s too late. Maggie and Paul arrive as the resort is being attacked. 

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Having no real way to help, they steal a speed boat to see if they can go downriver to the old coal mill to dump the leftover chemicals into the river and kill the piranhas before they reach the ocean and spread to other rivers. And that’s what they do. They save the world by polluting.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. It’s good for a laugh. It’s the type of campy fun I like to find on Netflix (or whatever video streaming service decides to sponsor Sarah’s blog).

Special thanks to my photo editor.

Yogurt Zombies: A Review of The Stuff

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Movie: The Stuff (1985)

Availability: Streaming on Netflix

Hide Under Blanket Moments: Zero. Too incompetent to really scare anyone, even me.

Naked Dude Sightings: Zero. Goddammit. Not that any of the dudes in this movie made me all helloooooooo, especially not Paul Sorvino. Sorry, Paul Sorvino.

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Plot Synopsis Pulled From Sketchy Internet Source: “A delicious mysterious goo that oozes from the Earth is marketed as the newest dessert sensation. But the sugary treat rots more than teeth when zombie-like snackers begin infesting the world.” –IMDB

Mini-Review: The central premise could be a clever satire in the hands of someone (anyone?) else. America’s food industry is pretty ripe for a takedown, but The Stuff is crushed by the weight of its own incomprehensible plot, or, like the film’s Yogurt-Zombies, explodes due to build-up of nonsense-goo. Pick your own metaphor. This movie is terrible, but the first 2/3 or so is really watchably terrible.

Goes best with: Ice cream. Or frozen yogurt. I’ve gotten really into Greek Go-Gurt recently (because I’m making a compromise with my impending adulthood, I guess? Like, I’ll eat healthier desserts, but only if they’re in a plastic tube with a cartoon skateboarding rabbit on it) and that goes pretty well with a Stuff screening.

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Review: Hey, wanna talk about the unsustainability of America’s food industry? Consumer ignorance? Corporate irresponsibility? How these factors contribute to the ever-widening distance between our farms and our tables? No? Good, because I’m only vaguely interested/absolutely unqualified to hold court on this. The Stuff knows even less about these things than I do, even accounting for its inability to see into the future. But, like that one dude at the party you feel bad about wanting to fuck, it has no problem discussing at length a topic about which it has very little knowledge.

Great horror movies are memorable because they’re grotesques of our society’s biggest faults and moral blind spots. Ultimately, they hold up a funhouse mirror to the audience. A good example: Dawn of the Dead’s subtle commentary on mounting American consumerism. Or most episodes of the original Twilight Zone series. I think this is what The Stuff is going for, but I also think that it was derailed at every level of its production. Writing? Terrible. Direction? Terrible. Effects? Fucking awful. Acting? The adults are okay, but the child actor, upon whom much of the film’s moral weight rests, is terrible and annoying and you, like me, will probably be rooting for his death 15 minutes into the movie.

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Also, there’s a whole, terrible military subplot that mostly makes no goddamn sense (the military group’s home base is located at what my boyfriend called “Castle MacGuffin”). This plot thread stretches the already-strained Big Picture thing the movie is going for. Instead of saying, “Look at yourselves, audience!” the movie is more like, “Hey, look at… wait, no, what? Like, yogurt is bad, maybe? But military’s worse, kind of? Hey, look, it’s Paul Sorvino!”

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The Stuff wants to be Dawn of the Dead. It is not. Dawn of the Dead had a brain, and a voice and point of view. The Stuff doesn’t and, worse, thinks it does. This is what makes it a great terrible movie. It doesn’t just fail, it does so with confidence. I hate this quality in people: confident incompetence is the fucking worst when it’s your dickhead coworker or most of your local politicians. But terrible movies like The Stuff are at their best when they boldly go to new, shitty depths.

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Go, watch The Stuff. Enjoy responsibly, fellow adults. *toasts you with Go-Gurt tube*