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Scary movies had another big year. A horror scholar shares her favorites

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is Halloween. So after all the trick-or-treaters have come and gone, why not to curl up on the couch tonight, maybe light a few candles and binge on this year's scariest movies? On the menu is a thriller in which teenagers talk to the dead...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALK TO ME")

ZOE TERAKES: (As Hayley) Light the candle to open the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG WHIMPERING)

TERAKES: (As Hayley) Blow it out to close it.

CHANG: ...And a film where humans face their fear of new technology...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "M3GAN")

ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Gemma) M3GAN, turn off.

JENNA DAVIS: (As M3GAN) Recalibrating response model (laughter).

CHANG: ...And another movie in which families face long-held secrets.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR")

TY SIMPKINS: (As Dalton Lambert) When I was 10, I was in a coma. But I don't even remember being sick.

CHANG: Well, here to take us on a journey through the year's biggest scares is horror scholar and filmmaker Rebekah McKendry. Welcome back.

REBEKAH MCKENDRY: Hello.

CHANG: Hello.

MCKENDRY: I'm excited to be back.

CHANG: Oh, we're so excited to have you back. So when you and I talked last year, I told you that scary movies are not my thing. Like, I love the idea of them. But then later, when I'm lying in bed alone at night, I can't get the scenes out of my head, and I can't fall asleep. So I'm going to count on you to catch me up on what's out there this year. How would you rate this year in the horror genre?

MCKENDRY: So we have seen another amazing year for horror with really high box office returns. Some of our biggest films of the year have been "Scream 6." "M3GAN" did incredibly well. "The Nun 2," "Insidious: The Red Door," "Evil Dead Rise" and the new "Exorcist" just did really well.

CHANG: Yeah, I keep seeing billboards for that one in LA. What about, like, smaller indie horror films - any stand out to you this past year?

MCKENDRY: On the indie spectrum this year, there's a couple of trends that we've seen. We've seen a lot of what I'll call trauma horror, which is about characters who are dealing with trauma. They've got deaths. They're recovering from some type of traumatic event that happened before the movie. The biggest one by far on the indie scene was "Talk To Me," which came out of Australia, was picked up by A24 and ended up being one of the top 10 highest grossing horror films of the year. Like, it really did well, and it is hyper-scary. This is not horror lite by any capacity.

CHANG: What is it about?

MCKENDRY: It is about a group of kids who find this hand, this kind of statue plaster hand that, when you hold it and say, talk to me, you can suddenly talk to a dead person.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

MCKENDRY: And in some cases they almost possess you, and you can have conversations with them. But you can only do it for a short amount of time, or else you can kind of lose yourself. And they can take control of your body.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALK TO ME")

SOPHIE WILDE: (As Mia) Put your hand on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILDE: (As Mia) Now say, talk to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG WHIMPERING)

ALEXANDRA JENSEN: (As Jade) Talk to me.

CHANG: Oh, my God. I can't do dead people. OK. Now, I also understand that there's a subgenre that you've been seeing more and more of. It's called liminal horror. What even is that?

MCKENDRY: It basically means to be trapped in an enduring nightmare, a liminal space, which technically means, like, an in-between space. It's like being trapped in a purgatory where there is - you don't get death, nor is it your normal, everyday life. You're just kind of trapped there. And where we've seen liminal horror really explode on the independent scene has been with two films. "Skinamarink," which is on Shudder but then also did this massive theatrical thing where it was just getting all of this press as kind of one of the scariest films of the year - and that's what it is. It is existing in this kind of in-between space of kids trapped in a house.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKINAMARINK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: In this house, in this house.

MCKENDRY: And then also on the indie scene, we saw an amazing film come out on Screambox called "The Outwaters," which is about a group of young adults who go vacationing in the desert and find themselves kind of trapped in a waking nightmare in the desert that they can't get away from. These films - they really feel like a direct response to all of the stuff that we went through during the pandemic because it is about being trapped...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: ...In this existential dread...

CHANG: You feel trapped.

MCKENDRY: ...Of a nightmare that you can't get away from. It's just enduring.

CHANG: Totally. Is there a genre of horror that you don't see much of anymore that you think is ripe for a comeback?

MCKENDRY: So horror comedies. We had a lot in the 1980s - things like "American Werewolf In London."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON")

GRIFFIN DUNNE: (As Jack Goodman) David, you're hurting my feelings.

DAVID NAUGHTON: (As David Kessler) Hurting your feelings. Has it occurred to you it might be unsettling to see you rise from the grave to visit me?

DUNNE: (As Jack Goodman) Sorry to be upsetting you, David.

MCKENDRY: "Return Of The Living Dead," "Re-Animator" - like, these were big kind of tentpole movies of the 1980s. But studios in general are still really nervous about horror comedies because horror is something that - it goes across age brackets. It goes across cultures. It literally spans the globe. If something jumps out at you, it is scary. But humor is something that is more divisive depending on the culture that you're in...

CHANG: Oh.

MCKENDRY: ...The age bracket that you fall into.

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: This year, the one big one that we had came out through Amazon, and it's called "Totally Killer." And it is a movie about a girl who has time traveled back in time to when her town had a slasher problem a number of years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOTALLY KILLER")

KIERNAN SHIPKA: (As Jamie Hughes) I'd like to report a crime that hasn't happened yet. Have you seen the movie "Back To The Future"? Basically, I'm living that movie right now, which is how I know there's going to be a murder tonight.

RANDALL PARK: (As Dennis Lim, laughter).

MCKENDRY: And she time travels back and is trying to save her mom and the town from the slasher.

CHANG: OK, well, maybe horror comedy is where I need to go because I'm a total scaredy pants. But do you have any other recommendations for someone like me, like, something that isn't too scary but is still spooky? It still gives that ooh feeling - because I do crave that.

MCKENDRY: Yeah, we've definitely had a couple of standouts in the kind of lighter horror categories this year. "No One Will Save You" is currently streaming on Hulu. This is a Brian Duffield movie. It is about a girl by herself in a house fighting aliens.

CHANG: Aliens doesn't scare me (laughter).

MCKENDRY: Yeah. I'll also give a shout-out to Disney's "Haunted Mansion" this year...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

MCKENDRY: ...Which was surprisingly scary. Like, I took...

CHANG: Really? Oh.

MCKENDRY: ...My kids to this one thinking...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: ...Oh, it's Disney's "Haunted Mansion." It's going to be completely fun. And it was, but it had enough scares in it that I felt tense at moments.

CHANG: OK, I love that you brought up Disney's "Haunted Mansion" because as a kid, I loved that ride. But it did totally scare me. And maybe what I'm asking you, Rebecca, is some bigger life advice here because what should someone like me do when I love being scared in the moment; I just can't live with the consequences afterwards? What should I consume?

MCKENDRY: That's a great question. So I always view it as, if a movie is still making me think about it later that night, what I need to embrace, if anything, is that that's a good movie, that they did something that's really psychologically effective.

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: And then it's always the idea of kind of telling yourself that it's just a movie. That was a big marketing phrase that we used in the 1970s. Tell yourself that it's only a movie over and over again. But at the end of the day, you know, that's what you're paying for. That's what you want in a good horror movie - is you want that scare when you're in the moment. And you want it to kind of stick to your bones for a little bit afterwards. Even if it's something that you know, you know, a robot child is not going to get you and you're not going to go in a haunted mansion anytime soon, the fact that it leaves kind of an echo in your system - that's a good horror movie.

CHANG: That is Rebecca McKendry, horror scholar and filmmaker. Thank you so much for being here again.

MCKENDRY: Oh, thank you so much for bringing me back and keeping it scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAUNTED MANSION")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) When the crypt doors creak and the tombstones quake, spooks come out for a swinging wake. Happy haunts materialize and begin to vocalize. Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Vincent Acovino
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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