We here at Grindhouse Theology want to manifest graced solidarity with our readers and fellow horror fans by sharing some of the films that have kept us sane during the current quarantine period. The social distancing protocols we’ve all had to put into effect have been hard on us all, but the remarkable thing many of us have witnessed is the fountain of fellowship erupting over the distances separating us. Sure, many corporatized platforms are as awful as they’ve ever been, but the attention economy has definitely been taking a hit in some quarters as people tune in for more podcasts and utilize group-texting more than than the typical grapeshot of Facebook.
We’ve been trying to make the best of time having Quarantine Movie Nights, linked together across the country as we take in each other’s film recommendations and discuss/joke our way through each one. This is a tense time to be alive and the cathartic power of horror has been a helpful abreaction for the insanity that brews in all of us during a global pandemic and a legendarily inept and repulsive presidency. As projections come to light and even an avowedly anti-science administration such as this is forced to come to terms, centimeter by centimeter, with them, the fear grips our hearts that we, as a country, are in over our heads and most of us simply aren’t really prepared for what must be done. After all, as the New York Times reported based on location data showed from cell phones across the country, staying home is a luxury for most folks.
The data offers real-time evidence of a divide laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic — one in which wealthier people not only have more job security and benefits but also may be better able to avoid becoming sick. The outbreak is so new that the relationship between socioeconomic status and infection rates cannot be determined, but other data, including recent statistics released by public health officials in New York City, suggests that the coronavirus is hitting low-income neighborhoods the hardest.
Welp… if you identify with the masses who have to carry on with something like the usual because hunkering down isn’t as affordable as it ought to be, then these thirteen (of course thirteen, what did you expect?) recommendations are for you. Wash your hands, clutch your rosary, and take a break from the daily grind with these choice cuts.
I love that saying, “nature is red in tooth and claw.” It’s commonly understood as a description of nature out there, but to compartmentalize ourselves from that same creation becomes problematic, environmentally and when it comes to our own egos. One of the key lines of liturgy in last year’s Crawl was a maxim transferred from father to daughter at swim meets: “you are an apex predator.” While the film thrills and ratchets tension with the monstrous alligators roaming through flood waters, I found myself coming back again and again to this line and how it seeks to transcend our own compartmentalizations. We are unique within creation— apex predators— but we are still one with the rest of creation and just as able to be subsumed in the red Tennyson spoke of.
“Pontypool is the quintessential zombie flick” will forever be my rallying cry. It gets at that je ne sais pas that zombie films hardly ever seek to achieve. What is the difference between us and the zombie? Is there a difference? Pontypool sure makes a case language is at the heart of what makes us human and when that gets scrambled, we become something less than human. On the surface the film acts as an oddity of the zombie subgenre, but what it has to say by the end is that once our words lose their connection to meaning we have lost our humanity. A timely reminder in this current moment.
Resident Evil Series
When I knew that my wife and I were going be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, I immediately suggested that we watch all of these back-to-back. So for three evenings, we strapped in and watched all six installments. The key is to keep going. The first movie is okay. The second movie is bad. And if you were to give up there, you’d miss out on a Mad Max/Prison Break/Westworld-zombie jamboree. Every movie retcons the one before, ignores crucial plot developments, discards and then recycles old characters— all amounting to an absolute madhouse of a film franchise. Not a single movie is good, but as they go on, and you find yourself terribly invested, each movie, you are shocked to discover, is great. Nothing but respect for Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson.
Life After Beth
There’s something emotionally resonant about a zombie movie that begins and ends with almost no answers to how we got to where we are. It seems true to life. And Life After Beth is a movie about grieving the loss of normal life, suddenly having a diminished version of it back, and trying to reconcile those two realities. Life during a pandemic has the same range of emotions it seems— pivoting wildly between darkly funny and agonizingly disorienting, it’s a remarkable depiction of coping. Jeff Baena’s crack at the genre isn’t perfect but, like Horse Girl and The Little Hours, is a memorable experience with a terrifying and engrossing female lead.
I Saw the Devil
What would you do if your fiancée was murdered by a ruthless serial killer while you were on the phone with her? In Kim Jee-woon’s Korean crime thriller with a mixture of revenge horror, trained secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon becomes entirely focused – even against agency orders – on finding the savage killer Kyung-chul and unleash all the power of his rage and grief. This film is unrelenting in how brutal it is, but it isn’t graphic for it’s own sake. It explores themes of justice, how revenge eats us away inside, and the depths we will go to for those we love. By the end of the film, Kim Jee-woon seems to invite us to ask, “Is Kyung-chul the only monster in this film?”
Nothing But the Night
This 1970s genre film featuring legends Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing will quickly remind viewers of a combination of The Wicker Man (which came out the same year) and Village of the Damned (which precedes it by over a decade). While this likely won’t make anyone’s favorite horror films list, the premise of the film (hint: personalities and old trustees) is so odd it simply becomes a wild cinematic ride towards such an off-the-rails kind of ending. Amongst all this, we get hints of several themes such as the love of a mother for her child and the fear of our own mortality. This film serves as a good popcorn flick to enjoy when you can’t find something to watch.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
I finally got around to seeing this film recently and I couldn’t believe I had put this film on the back-burner for so long. This Iranian vampire western (yes, you read that correctly) is a subtle, subdued story which is, in fact, about much more than vampirism, exploring themes of female sexuality, misogyny, family ties, and the long-term impact of generational sin. Sparse, but well-placed dialogue. So much of the film is carried along by the actor’s facial expressions or brief movements in a scene. Nothing here felt wasted. The shots were gorgeously composed (a stand-out one for me was the skateboard riding scene). This film is intentionally slow and deliberate but those who take the time to enjoy its lull will be richly rewarded.
While definitely having its moments of kitsch, the 1994 television miniseries was the first cinematic experience that I can recall that felt epic in scope, which is exactly the way any kind of pandemic tale should feel. What better way to kick off the coronavirus than by watching this schlocky, cheesy but nostalgic and character-driven six hour Stephen King story in one sitting? It could not have been more fitting that my best friend, who I have been having quarantine-esque parties with since high school replete with contingencies of the apocalypse on our mind, was visiting from Atlanta from March 12th (the day after the president’s national address) until March 17th. It had been sixteen years since we had first watched The Stand together, so, on March 14th, we hunkered down with our rations of Doritos and Mexi-Cokes and endured all of the movie in one viewing, taking only one pause for a bathroom break.
If you can get past the camp, or, better yet, learn to love it, you will find that one of the most appealing aspects of The Stand is its longform storytelling. Remember this is before the era of peak television and so the made for TV miniseries met that need in, albeit shoddier, ways. What is a bigger concern than the cringe-worthy CGI in the third act is the use of the Magical Negro in the form of Abagail Fremantle as well as the stereotypes of women and the disabled, but that is the fault of Stephen King’s source material. If you are looking for a narrative that parallels the hysteria and the notion of fear as a virus, then consider delving into this adaptation (which is set, ironically, for a remake this year). M-O-O-N, that spells post-apocalyptic-pandemic-show-to-binge.
Castle Rock (Season 1)
Staying with Stephen King, I decided to watch a more critically acclaimed series of his, and it did not disappoint. Castle Rock is if Rectify and The Leftovers had an in vitro baby, birthed it, and then cryogenically froze it for twenty seven years. Further, there are similarities to both Lost and The Haunting of Hill House in its non-linear storytelling and robust character development. Each episode title has a multiplicity of meanings as well and signifies some of the more complex and nuanced themes the show is exploring. As the series is set in the interconnected setting of the Stephen King universe, place is all important. The premise is that attorney Henry Michael Deaver, the adopted black son of a white couple consisting of a deceased Catholic priest and a woman suffering from dementia (Sissy Spacek), returns to his hometown when he receives an anonymous call from Shawshank that a prisoner is being held in a cage without due process. The less I say plot-wise the better as the labyrinthine unfolding of the secrets of this location are evidence of first-rate storytelling. Not since the first season of Lost or Breaking Bad have I seen such impeccable writing. Although the show’s gravitas comes from the way it depicts themes such as rehabilitation, memory, identity, collective history, repression, and evil, there is also the pleasure to be had from finding the Easter eggs and references to the entire corpus of King’s work. Throughout the narrative, you will find that even the minor characters get developed with backstories that have you identifying with them. However, it is in the experiences of Henry Michael Deaver that we confront the themes of racism and scapegoating and find some poignant social commentary that resonates with the polarized culture we live in. The notion that people believe what they want to believe and the concept of confirmation bias is prevalent throughout and parallels the competing media narratives we find in our ongoing national dialogue. Even more specifically, as we go through the collective sacrifice of the coronavirus, and we are forced to face the panic arising from the disease and the panic from being quarantined as well as being encumbered with distrust, Castle Rock addresses these overwhelming insecurities. The best kind of escapism for me is not one that distracts me from the pain that I am in, but one that allows me to simulate that pain but in more extreme or absurd forms. Thus, Castle Rock was a kind of exposure therapy for me, allowing me to process my anxiety through imaginative play.
A Tale of Two Sisters
I enjoyed this South Korean horror flick, my fifteen hundredth movie (according to Letterboxd), with fellow GT writer Ian Olson. The movie is a slow-burn and follows the adjustment of two sisters as they return from a mental institution. As one who has been hospitalized for psychiatric care, I relate to any work of art or any story that depicts the adjustment of returning to the external world. With any representation of mental illness, the potential for caricature arises. And, of course, this movie being horror in the conventional sense does not avoid those. Nevertheless, it does present some truthful and compelling ideas about mental illness. What I found most thought-provoking though was how the film was able to embody much of the emotions I have about what transition will look like post-quarantine. The sisters leave one prison for another, which is a house that may or may not be possessed. The thought has occurred to me several times that when the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted and mass amounts of people flee for public parks, beaches, restaurants, and theaters, we may find the outside just as confining as the inside. Moreover, in our current sequestration conflicts in our household increase. In the film, family dysfunction is manifested in the haunting discord throughout the house. Playing like a darkly twisted fairy tale, A Tale of Two Sisters is Lynchean and surreal and is enhanced by an unsettling ambient score and muted color palette. There are themes of identity, duality, and regret that are artfully unfolded, and the claustrophobia seems to resonate with what it feels like to be in quarantine right now. You might not have a sadistic stepmother, but you can probably understand what it feels like to be smothered by one person, no matter how much you love them, for a long time. Additionally, one peculiar quality to the quarantine that I did not anticipate was the sense of a loss of identity. Without routine, without work in the traditional sense, and without physical proximity with friends, days begin to merge, and our sense of self with it. Our understanding of who we are is largely dependent on our work and our schedules. As the oldest sister in the film stumbles about the house and has a confusing perspective on reality, I felt that I could relate to that sense of being lost. I highly recommend this cryptic movie and that is to say nothing of a third act that is unforgettable.
Somehow, in spite of everything this movie communicated in its description and thumbnail visuals, Stake Land actually turned out to be a grim, surprisingly satisfying diesel-punk drama with, you know, vampires. Yes, it trades in many tropes of the zombie subgenre— dystopian future, militant cults, isolated pockets of survivors amidst a landscape teeming with the infected… did I mention the vampires arose because of a pandemic sweeping across the globe? Oof. Too soon? Featuring an aged Kelly McGillis doing her best Sister Jessica Lange, the film ends up chronicling a boy’s passage into manhood under the tutelage of a disillusioned, no-nonsense vampire hunter and focuses on the emotional costs of surviving an inhuman world.
The claustrophobia and panicked, “We need to get this right or we all die in here” pragmatics that define this film probably describe where many of us are at as cabin fever sets in and COVID-19 shows no signs of going away soon. Particularly pungent for our moment are the neo-Nazi antagonists who call the shots regarding who gets out and how. This film pulls absolutely no punches and brutally demonstrates how youthful verve isn’t enough to fight your way past the powers that be, so don’t front— the consequences are real, and terrible. But they’re also a taut ninety minutes of cinematic adrenaline.
Possibly the only thing more bewildering and repugnant than a clueless, hedonistic, responsibility-illiterate, libertarian with a hairpiece is a clueless, hedonistic responsibility-illiterate, libertarian with a mullet. One is the commander-in-chief here in the U. S. of A. while the other is the self-appointed king of big cats born and bred in the same. Tiger King is the true story of a cohort of people, each of whom manage somehow to be more unlikable than the last, though one is at least innocent of threatening one of the other’s lives. You’ve no doubt heard many things about this series, but the absolutely flabbergastingly batshit thing about it is everything you heard is true. You will choke on your shocked laughter as deep, crushing sadness washes over you witnessing some of the most despicable people in the world live out their stupid dreams and flail about trying to pick up the pieces when their feline empires collapse. Watch in horror as people with the means to carry out preposterously wrongheaded schemes incompetently attempt the project of life and whine about their rights when normal people decry their decadence. Quail with existential fright as human beings who seem more like caricatures of real people display evidence of having been spiraling their entire lives from day one. Then share some ridiculous memes with all your friends!