Sharknado and the Joys (and Pitfalls) of B Horror

Over the past few years, I have developed a great love for B horror films.  Not the occasional gems that are actually just a good film wrapped in a small budget (though I tend to really like those for the obvious reasons– that they’re good— and I must admit that I’m actually quite surprised and how many pleasant, spooky surprises I’ve found while expecting junk food movies), but rather the kind that are weakly plotted, with monsters that elicit laughter instead of screams, and acting so awful it warrants a standing ovation.  The sort of film that Mystery Science Theater 3000 made money making a mockery of.

So, when I first heard the title of Sharknado, I immediately opened up YouTube in my browser and watched the trailer.  I knew, as I caught my first glimpse of a shark inside a tornado, that it was Sharknado_postergoing to be something one typically only finds in dreams.  I immediately added it to my watch list on IMDb.  I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at the tagline “Enough Said!” feeling that so true of words were rarely printed next to such bad CGI graphics.

Unfortunately, the movie was still several months away from its premiere on Syfy, so I let thoughts of whirlwind-borne sharks slip to the back of my mind.  This, combined with a lack of cable television in my home (Netflix is much more viable on a college budget) resulted in me being unaware of the first airing of wonderful swirly, bitey destruction, or even of its two encore showings (which, I understand, grew in ratings each time).  No, I didn’t think of my brief zeal for the idea of the film until one day, while looking through new additions to Netflix, I spied the marine predators that can be seen above and gasped with joy.

Now, my first reaction was to immediately hit the play button and begin my revelry, but I knew I had to constrain myself.  Films like Sharknado are not the sort you watch alone.  You have to have friends, and you have to be ready to bask in craziness.  I had to save it for the perfect time.  I’m glad I did.

One evening, a couple of weeks ago, a group of some of my funnest friends and I were trying to come up with a good movie to watch.  It was proposed that we watch a horror movie, so we began looking through the applicable section on Netflix.  The group was busy laughing and chatting and barely paid attention to the titles that scrolled past on the screen, so when I saw it, I knew the timing was perfect.  I insisted, and we hit play.

From the first cheesy line delivered I knew that the film was gold.  We laughed harder and harder as the plot went from a storm pushing thousands of sharks into a frenzied swarm to tornadoes hurling the razor-toothed beasts through Los Angeles.

The characters have weak back stories and are acted with as much cheese as anybody could dream for.  One of the characters is Australian, and had an accent we all mocked incessantly– until the IMDb app on my phone informed me of the fact that he was, in fact, actually from Australia.

And then this, one of the greatest things in all of film, happened.  Click on that link.  You won’t regret it.  I tried to include it in the post, but for some reason the GIF didn’t work.

Sorry for the spoiler, this is was just good to not share.  I laughed.  A lot.  We all did.  I laughed so hard that I almost shed tears.

Yes, that’s a man, a character the writers unabashedly named Fin, cutting a shark hurled at him from a tornado in half with a chainsaw.  And this was just one of many wonderful spectacles in the film.

The group’s solution to the sharknadoes is simultaneously delightfully whimsical and hysterically funny.

It’s just a magical film.  I love it.  If you like B horror movies, or if you want to find the right one to get you into the, this is likely the right one to watch.

And, for me, it also managed to avoid what I consider to be the biggest pitfall of B horror movies– lots of sex and nudity.  This had none.  Which is good, because I wouldn’t have watched it if it had any.

Most B horror movies seem to have gratuitous amounts of nudity and sex.  Especially many of the more contemporary ones.  Often, they seem to be made with just the tiniest hint of plot as an excuse to show a bunch of naked people (who have no discernible amount of acting ability whatsoever) running around, and also, gore.  Let me be clear that I have no interest in those kinds of B movies, no matter how alluring they would be to me otherwise.  For example, I was deeply saddened when I learned that another movie that is clearly very much in the same vein as Sharknado was about half sexual content: Mega Piranha.  A film with giant piranhas jumping out of the ocean to explode upon impact with skyscrapers (which is a scene I have viewed) seems to be right up my alley.  It’s a real shame that only a half hour or so of the movie was such bliss.

I suppose that, from the responses I’ve gotten to this post on Reddit, I should go a little further into my desire for B movies to not have sex and nudity.  Part of this does come from a moral standpoint– I am very religious and feel as though inclusion of such is immoral and generally degrading to the human body.  Many do not share my views and are welcome to disagree with me on from that standpoint.  However, there is more to it than that, from perhaps a more widely-accepted perspective.  Simply, I feel that the inclusion of such both fails to contribute anything more than the most base of thrills– and not of any level of fear.  Surprisingly, making low-budget horror effectively entertaining seems to be quite tricky to accomplish, so the inclusion of naked bodies tends to show a total inability to keep the audience’s interest any other way.  Simply, it’s cheap, and seems a desperation move.  I’ve had the fact pointed out to me that nakedness does bring an added element of exposure and weakness of a character, especially when confronted with something dangerous or frightening.  This obviously can be quite true– hence the “shower scene” idea that has been used almost constantly since Psycho (and maybe before).  I agree that nakedness– or any sort of physical exposure– can bring a powerful element of frailty and weakness, but it has to be done well.  If it truly being used for heightening tension and scares, it must be done with a careful hand.  Unfortunately, many films that may be defended in such a light are only making the weakest of excuses for sexual reveals of their actresses or actors.  It seems to me that B movies are almost universally quite ham-handed in their use of the exposed human form.

So, to get my fix of the silliness in spades I have come to love, I often have to turn to black-and-white era horror films, such as cult classic The Giant Gila Monster, which could also feature the “Enough Said!” tagline, though mayhap with “Also, A Scene Where Some Kid Badly Plays a Song on His Guitar and Sings That is Like Three Times Longer Than It Should Be!” tacked on, as well.  One of my personal favorites (much better than The Giant Gila Monster) is the 1959 film Att220px-Giantleechesack of the Giant Leeches.  The titular leeches were so tremendous in size, of course, as the result of radiation, but then again, what huge movie monsters wasn’t that way because of something nuclear in that era of Cold War paranoia?  I suppose that I launch into a discourse on how horror movies and books tend to reflect the biggest social fears and issues of their times, but I suppose I should save that scholarly of discussion for a post that doesn’t include a GIF of a man cutting a flying shark in half with a single swipe of a chainsaw.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is another notable monochrome film that just screamed to be watched.  A mad scientist keeping a brain (and assorted other dismembered body parts) alive, a mutant, telepathy, picking victims at a burlesque bar– what’s not to love?

And how about The Killer Shrews, which featured dogs as the shrews and lots of terrible racial stereotypes that were fun to mock incessantly.  For example, the Hispanic servant on the shrew island pretty much only said “Si senor,” the one black character seemed the model for Jar-Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and was, as what almost seems to be a law in horror movies, the first to die.  The female lead did an exceptional amount of swooning and fainting.  Fun for everybody.

KillershrewsIt’s no surprise, with the MPAA regulations being so strict in the 50s and 60s, that this era brought out so many of the B horror films that I’ve come to love, but I am sad that it is such a rare thing to find comparable horror films that are worth my time (as a time-waster) now.

A note– one of the most famous B horror films of all time is Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I tried to watch (and mock) this with friends, but it was just too bad and too weird to even come up with sarcastic quips about.  Pretty much anything we said during the film instead was “What is going on?” or disinterested chitchat.  It’s something about aliens, zombies, and a murder (I think).  It was really hard to follow.  I really, really wanted to love it, but it was just awful.  I know many other B horror lovers have a passion for it, but I felt like it was really just unwatchable.  So, I guess a lot of these older films are just as intolerable as many new ones, just for less promiscuous reasons.

At least I can have some hope for the future of B horror films because I happily just found out that Sharknado 2: The Second One is going to coming out next July.

So, what are your thoughts about B horror movies?  Which ones do you like, which ones do you hate, which ones changed your life?  I would really love to get more comments from my readers, make this blog more of a forum of horror (or whatever else I post about), rather than just my thoughts.  I would love to watch some great B movies from what you have to share– especially modern ones that fit my criteria for a good B movie.



Anybody who is half as serious about Halloween as my friends are watch horror movies all throughout October.  Well, all throughout the year, but October brings a concentrated dose of the scary.  That said, a few nights ago I Redboxed Mama as part of a double date as one of my many Halloween-appropriate film choices.  From looking at reviews on IMDb I could tell that feelings about the film were mixed, the critics feeling pretty lukewarm about it, the users more positive.  The top five or so user reviews very articulately explained very positive (eight to ten stars) feelings about the film, so I decided to give it a shot.

As a whole, I liked it.  I’m going to break it down more than that, but I fear that my critique may give an unduly negative feel about the film, Sadly, this poster is slightly scarier than the film I just want to be clear that as a whole this is an enjoyable film that doesn’t make for a wasted evening.

For starters, just a brief blurb on the gist of the plot, as free from spoilers as I can manage: Mama is the story of a young couple, Annabel and Lucas, the latter of whom having a recent family tragedy in which his brother went nuts and shot a bunch of people, kidnapped his young daughters, and disappeared.  The broken family has a car crash, ends up in the woods, and the father is killed, leaving two very young girls to be cared for by a supernatural entity known as “Mama.”  For years Lucas funds a constant search for his brother and his nieces, and finds them– shaped by the years in the forest.  The plot then takes off with all these pieces in place.

That was surprisingly difficult to explain.  Let’s just say it sets all this up very nicely.

The most impressive element of this film is the acting.  The adult cast’s performances were all very solid, but the real stars of the show were the little girls.  They capture the broken social skills of the girls, really showing off in a tangible way (their movements) how inhuman living in the woods made them.  The differences between the two girls– with the younger, who has no memories of civilized life– being so distinct when they are reintroduced to society is also impressively portrayed.  In many ways the girls are the most frightening element of the film.

The story is also quite strong in the piece.  It progresses quite naturally, with strong characters whose interactions very naturally progress the story.  There is unfortunately one or two bits of Mama that relied on some deus ex machina (such as the non-Mama dream– you’ll see if you watch it) that bothered me, especially since there really could have been more plot-conducive reasons the related character performs a certain action, but the rest of the story flows quite smoothly and realistically.  I like that it used many conventions of the horror genre, and of ghost stories in particular, but did so in a way that manipulated audience expectations, using those expectations to form a sort of thrill ride viewing experience.  The story’s conclusion is surprisingly thought-provoking and sparked a fairly lengthy conversation among those I watched with, managing to be both satisfying and unsettling– which I feel is a rare and powerful thing in the genre.  I don’t always need that blended feeling, but it is refreshing that it mixes things up.  I feel with horror generally, and especially in film, [SPOILERS FOR 1408, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE FOURTH KIND, AND CABIN IN THE WOODS] that too often everything is wrapped up too nicely  (1408, where everything is A-okay after he gets out), or wrapped up nicely but then with an unexplained shock ending (Jason surfacing at the end of Friday the 13th), or is just depressing, or with nothing gained or explained (The Fourth Kind, which resulted in both my wife and I just saying “What?” and vowing to never watch any movie with Milla Jovovich again) or extremely catastrophic (Cabin in the Woods and the destruction of the ENTIRE WORLD) [END SPOILERS].

And now to my beef with Mama.  Mama.  As I’ve stated, I’m pretty good with the story, and that, of course, extends to Mama.  She is pretty creepy in concept, and for about half the film, pretty creepy in execution.  The problem is that, in the latter half of the film, they show her.  A lot.  She looks pretty weird, yes, but stereotypical cartoon alien weird, which is not what I wanted for a freaky, angry maternal poltergeist.  And it isn’t so much that I’m disappointed with the effects people not making her creepy enough, it’s that I did not want to get a good look at her at all.  Just as the terrifying nature of Samara vanishes when you properly see her in The Ring, Mama loses the mystique of the unknown.  Honestly, if they didn’t show her face for the entire movie I would have found it twice and scary, easily.  When she’s being a floor shark, only her hair visible moving through the carpet, she’s solid.  When you can’t see her properly because the camera is showing the older sister’s vision without glasses, I shuddered wondering what she could be.  The director really missed something good with her.

I’d say pretty much everything else was pretty solid.  The score was good, contributing to the atmosphere while avoiding distraction.  The visuals (except as I’ve noted) were dark in a good way.  The opening credits, which made use of children’s drawings to tell the story of the girls’ lives with Mama, were very unsettling.


Three (Zombified) Faces of The Walking Dead

Zombies are in right now.  Very in.  And one of the biggest zombie franchises in media right now is The Walking Dead.  Now, I’ve seen a lot of discussion about individual incarnations of that franchise, but I haven’t seen them laid side-by-side outside of “the TV show is better,” or “the comics are better” debates with my cooler coworkers.  So, I mean to fill this hole in the oeuvre of Walking Dead criticism.  I’m going to hit what I feel are the key three incarnations: the comic series, the TV series, and the Telltale Games video game.  No, I’m not going to touch the novels, or the Survival Instinct video game (which I have, at best, heard it referred to as “a not terrible shooter”), so even my broad discussion may not be broad enough for some readers.

The logical starting point has to be the comics.  It is how The Walking Dead came to be, for which I have to give it my apprecWalkingDead1iation.  Surprising to me was the fact that even though it has spawned other things that I enjoy so thoroughly, I don’t actually care much for the comics.  Now, bear in mind that I have not read anywhere near all of the series, though I have read a sizable chunk– up to issue 20 or so.   That being said, my thoughts and critiques may no longer be valid for the comic books.  But, here’s my thoughts about what I have read:

First, I do feel like the story is an overall positive element of the series.  That said, the drama between characters sometimes gets very thick, and I feel like there is frequently a lack of cohesiveness with how abruptly plot-shaping elements are thrown at the audience (SPOILER ALERT:) such as how abruptly Hershel’s younger daughters are murdered (END SPOILER).  As a reader, I felt very jilted, no longer really connected with the movement of the story.  It isn’t that every surprise in the story needs to have foreshadowing or the like, but some level of buildup helps.  If there is buildup, I can read even the most terrible twists which hurt my favorite characters and enjoy the experience, taking it as part of the thrill ride.  When there isn’t, as with The Walking Dead comics, it’s like the writers are cheating the audience– any extreme change can happen in a flash.  I guess it just made each issue feel like a one shot story, not a continual story.  Additionally, the general pacing of the story was too rapid, never slowing to allow the reader to savor the experience of being put into the universe created by the writers and artists.

I feel like many of the characters are strong and interesting, but that a number of them are just… unpleasant.  For example, the choices the writers made for the character Dale really discouraged my interest in continuing to read the series.  There are just some things that shouldn’t happen.  Even in a zombie apocalypse, just… no.

My final struggle with the comics is the dialogue.  Honestly, the characters just don’t seem to talk like real people.  Every interaction feels very clunky and unrealistic. I couldn’t get a solid feel for any of the character’s voices.  Without the occasional regional colloquialism it would be really hard to tell that they’re in Georgia.  I feel like the scripts all needed another draft to get all this ironed out.

My next move is to the television series, which is how I (and probably a majority of The Walking Dead audience) came to be familiar with the franchise.  I heard a little about it before it came out, but latched onto two key things: that it was going to be a TV series about a zombie apocalypse, and that Frank Darabont was involved.  Naturally, being a fan of both zombies and Darabont, I was excited, thinking that if the man could do Stephen King right, he could certainly do zombies right as well.TheWalkingDeadPoster

And it was with great zeal that I watched the pilot– which was superb.  I was very quickly drawn into the story, my enjoyment paused only for me to roll my eyes a little bit at the staleness of the idea of waking up with the apocalypse already well underway.  The special effects were strong, especially with the iconic half-zombie crawling through the grass.  I really appreciated how seriously the show took zombies, not going with a bunch of bad actors and writing as seems to be so common with supernatural TV series (like Supernatural).

I continued to enjoy the heck out of the first season, quickly consuming the episodes in a short period of time.  I liked the strength of the cast of characters– each was very strong in their motivations which made their interactions with the others tense, worthwhile and realistic.  The action was compelling and, where it fitted, stomach-churning, especially in the second episode.  The season finale was a little over the top, but still kept the fun of watching quite high.

The second season began strong for me as well, and I finally began to choose favorite characters (Daryl and Dale– who is not creepy, like his comic book counterpart) to invest in.  The intensity was strong– and then took an interesting, and admittedly not altogether positive, direction.  The move to Hershel’s farm was too safe, and brought a shift from a survival epic to, well, what almost seemed like a soap opera that happened to have zombies.  The acting was still good, but the story seemed stuck, with series of episodes just being extended arguments that went in circles.  If my memory serves, there was an episode that had only one zombie, and with a show title like The Walking Dead, that doesn’t jive with me.  The end of the season definitely picked up a lot, resolving a lot of the drama that was, at times, downright frustrating to watch.  The last few episodes almost make up for the way the season dragged on midway through.

The third season, though, made me forgive the series for my issues with what had come before.  Immediately the intensity of the series went (forgive the cliche, I’m drawing a blank on better phrasing) full-throttle.  Within a few episodes, the shape of the story had changed in fascinating ways, forcing the characters to grow individually and as a group.  The conflicts with the Governor and Woodbury made for some of the best television I’ve seen since Firefly.  To celebrate how good the series had gotten, I quickly began attending Walking Dead parties for new episodes.

My concerns for the third season are much more minor than the prior ones.  Mostly, I feel like the Governor needs to be fleshed out more solidly, particularly in the lack of clarity of what his motivations are.  He’s a bit too much of an enigma, and that actually took away from how scary he potentially can be.  My other concern was that the last five or so episodes really could have been done in two.

Must say that I’m really excited about the season 4 premiere in 9 days.

Finally, the Telltale Games video game, which is my favorite iteration of The Walking Dead by far.  Let me just start by saying that if you haven’t yet, you should play it and why are you still reading this?  Just go play.  With that out of the way, here’s my description of what it’s all about:

The game is set in the same universe as the comics, and features two notable characters therefrom– Glenn and Hershel, though both of them are only in the game for parts of the first episode.  Other than their inclusion, and the details of the apocalypse, the story is very TWD-game-covermuch its own.  The main character, Lee Everett, was headed to prison for the murder of his wife and the senator she was adulterous with. Abruptly, the police car taking him there hits a Walker and crashes, freeing the prisoner and giving him his first interaction with the undead.   Soon he finds a little girl named Clementine and takes her under his wing, promising to protect her and try to find her parents, who were out-of-town when the crap hit the fan.  Soon his group grows, hell breaks loose, and he has to work with those whom circumstance throws in his path.

So, a pretty basic zombie apocalypse plot, but one rarely seen in the video game genre.  Instead of being a flashy shooter, showing off the latest aiming mechanics and lots of action, the story moves at a slower pace, with game mechanics based mostly on making decisions.  You often make choices that result in your teammates living or dying– and you have to live with the consequences.  Each character is strong and compelling, and there is a surprisingly powerful emotional draw that some of them have.  In all seriousness, this is the only video game that has almost brought tears to my eyes.  You really care about what happens to most of these characters– and the game’s story reacts to what you say to people, and what you choose to do.  There is some truly dark and terrifying moments– the turning point in episode 2 left me speechless.

Plus, there’s so much good to be said of the visual style of the game.  It takes the style of the comics and improves on it, translating it in a way that was a surprisingly effective blend of realistic and cartoony.

Again, just go play the game.  It’s honestly the best thing The Walking Dead has to offer.

So, there’s my thoughts.  I’m sure my thoughts won’t line up with many other fans of the franchise, but I’m interested to hear others’ opinions.


House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.


The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

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