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To scream, perchance to laugh

From left: Podcast (Logan Kim) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) fire a proton pack for the first time in Columbia Pictures' Ghostbusters: Afterlife. PHOTO: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

If you happen to be a journalist or critic on the entertainment beat, the imminent arrival of All Hallows’ Eve encourages coverage of scary movies — the classic and the newly brewed. I have previously written a couple columns on the subject in this publication, one of which listed the 10 feature films that I believe are the absolute scariest ever made. Previous scribbles aside, we live in an unprecedented time with a pandemic that suggests the very real possibility of a devastating global plague heretofore only seen in horror fiction. What could possibly out-scary that?

There’s no question that “scary” is one of those concepts on a spectrum. Different things frighten different people, the way that some abhor spiders and snakes and some have them as pets. While accepting the subjective nature of fear, I’ve seen my share of horror movies that are about as terrifying as the comedic parodies on the venerable SCTV sketches featuring Count Floyd’s Monster Chiller Horror Theater.

The old monsters may not make us jump and yelp the way they did in the past. Universal Pictures had a plan to revive their legendary ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s takes on Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein’s creation, and the results have been uneven at best. Deadly over-the-top maniacs Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th haven’t cut it in a while. Sure, the 2018 revival of the Halloween slash-a-thons got off to a good start with the demented masked murderer Michael Myers back to his slaughtering ways four decades after the 1978 movie that started the franchise and is continuing with the Oct. 15 release of Halloween Kills — the second film in a trilogy that will wrap next October with Halloween Ends.

BRING OUT YOUR DREAD 

To give credit where it’s due, director James Wan did bring the world a sick and twisted sadist named Jigsaw in the Saw movie series — even if the teeth on the proverbial blade have worn down after nine increasingly grisly movies. Wan himself seems to have grown weary of Jigsaw, moving on to a couple supernatural narratives that launched other franchises: the paranormal investigation-themed The Conjuring and the haunted house update Insidious. Wan’s latest, Malignant, is a pastiche of various horror subgenres with his usual visual flair that was undone by a clumsy script. It flails, whereas the recent back-to-back movies by filmmaker Ari Aster — the generational chiller Hereditary and the modern journey into pagan mystery Midsommar — have been among the most unsettling narrative experiences in memory, both inspiring serious dread and make-it-stop-flight-or-fight responses with their final acts.

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Malignant, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

If horror seems to be falling flat these days, it might be the fault of the director, script, cast, or special effects. There’s a reason certain directors become known for their specific ability to shock audiences, while others can’t summon a shiver. It’s also possible that a plot or conceit is just too familiar or, pardon the expression, done to death to give us pause. Consider the increasing prevalence of zombies in our culture — and I’m not talking about victims of social media brainwashing.

After years of exposure to zombie movies and TV shows, the concept of the infectious, ambulatory, flesh-eating undead has lost much of the fright factor that fueled filmmaker George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead. When Romero made his first incredibly influential and stomach-churning zombie movie way back in 1968 and followed it with a handful of increasingly gruesome sequels, he was running what was pretty much the only shambling game in town. We’ve had decades of zombie flicks since then, including more Living Dead sequels or remakes (with the SyFy channel’s Day of the Dead zombie outbreak series coming soon) as well as over 100 episodes of the long-running cable TV program The Walking Dead, plus two spin-offs, Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: World Beyond. We’ve seen the hordes overwhelm the uninfected over and over, and watched good folks turn into monsters. How much brain-munching needs to happen before the chomp loses its bite?

KILLING JOKES

Dismissing a motif that may be diminished by repetition, it’s still thrilling to experience a truly creepy, nightmare-inducing horror show on screen. But there’s something to be said about leavening your screams with a little laughter — especially these days. Way back in 1948, Universal tapped the long-running comedy duo Abbott and Costello to encounter some of their monsters in a well-received romp with the title Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which saw the duo in full heebie-jeebie mode when confronted by Dr. Frankenstein’s lumbering patchwork man, plus Count Dracula, and the Wolf Man. This three-fer was followed by similar releases pitting Abbott and Costello against the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and even Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of literary fame.

It seems like the anarchic spirit of those vintage Abbott and Costello team-ups informed 1984’s Ghostbusters, a movie that featured comic actors Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, and associates taking on outlandish invaders from the netherworld in a rollicking attempt to protect humanity from supernatural forces. Ghostbusters holds up well today, even if its sequel and a recent all-female reboot didn’t come close to matching the hilarity of the first. Now, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, touted as a real continuation of the first is on the horizon, although it won’t be released until Nov. 11.

Meanwhile, there are numerous other funny and frightful film selections that can be booted up on streaming services or via video-on-demand for your Halloween party or simply for home viewing as you snack on trick-or-treat booty: Slither, James Gunn’s hilarious 2006 alien-invasion parody; Scream, the 1996 kick-off of the still-running movie series that pokes fun at the teens-in-peril horror trope; What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s deadpan 2014 vampires-in-New Zealand mockumentary which spawned the current American TV series of the same name; Freaky, last year’s thoroughly wacky and gory look at what happens in a small town when a serial killer switches minds with a mousy high-school girl; and The Host, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s wild 2006 satire about a chemically spawned beast that terrorizes Seoul. And yes, zombie fans, you’re covered with Zombieland, the jaunty 2009 dead-have-risen adventure starring Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, and good ol’ Bill Murray who, at this point, was done bustin’ ghosts.

One brief suggestion if you watch these movies: Try not to die laughing.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

TEN MORE SCARY-FUNNY FILMS

Army of Darkness

Attack the Block

Cooties

Eight-Legged Freaks

From Dusk to Dawn

Fright Night

Gremlins

Pride, Prejudice and Zombies

Tremors

Werewolves Within

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