Horror Marginalia: “Downrange”

Six strangers who are carpooling to mostly unknown destinations are derailed when a tire blows on a desolate stretch of highway. In changing it, they discover that the tire was actually shot by an unseen sniper somewhere out there in the landscape around them, and that sniper is out to kill them.

There are some interesting ideas at play in Downrange, but the movie can’t quite figure out what to do with them.

The film doesn’t waste any time stranding our six strangers – the blowout happens moments in — and the revelation of their plight is satisfying creepy (not to mention gory). The first deaths are quick and surprising, and there’s a delicious, disorienting energy in the film’s opening stretch. It seems we might be in for a “locked room” experience in the vein of Cujo, only with the monster hidden from view.

Unfortunately, the film expands outward into more well-worn horror movie tropes. As the remaining targets try to figure out a way to escape, there’s an abundance of MacGyver-style hijinks to figure out the sniper’s location and to find an escape route. But the logic is often wonky and the performances are verging on hysterical. There are decent stretches of the film where you can check Twitter and not miss a thing, and you’re sometimes rooting for the sniper to just get it over with.

Things improve when a new car arrives (fresh meat!), but even an injection of new faces and a lot of blood can’t get us back on course. The fresh meat set up the film’s final act, which lumbers to a confrontation between sniper and target that uncomfortably inches into slasher film territory. We end on a note that doesn’t satisfy any of our expectations, and the whole enterprise feels frustratingly off.

When it works, Downrange is a goofy, gory ride with a few tense scenes and some enjoyably gross kills. Despite its frustrations, you want to stick with the film. But it is never as good as you want it to be.

It’s a shot that misses the target due to some shaky aim.

Horror Marginalia: “Goosebumps”

I was a little older than the target market for Goosebumps, so they weren’t an integral part of my horror childhood. But my writing partner and I are tackling some middle-grade horror, so I dipped my toe into the R.L. Stine pond.

I find them really charming books, delivering just the right mix of creepiness and chuckles to ease a kid into horror. The stories are sturdy and the characters are relatable.

I wonder what my writing trajectory would have been had I been a Goosebumps kid.

Story Pieces: “On the Death of John Wayne”

When she walked by my table, I made a point to say something.

“I like that bag. My grandmama has one like that.” I lied. I didn’t know my grandmama. She put her hand on the side of her bag and brushed across it, smiling.

“That’s real sweet, mister. Thank you.”

“Did you make it?”

“I did. Out of some of my oldest one’s work shirts. Bet your grandmama made hers too.”

I told her my grandmama did. I wanted her to keep talking, telling me things. She did. She told me her oldest was in high school. I told her she didn’t look old enough to have a kid in high school even though she did. She told me she had a daughter who was a year younger and another one that was only six.
“Del got a little too frisky one night, and all of a sudden we was parents again.” Del was her husband. She told me he worked at a warehouse, smoked cigars that she hated, and was the first man who ever made her feel like she was more than a “breed cow,” as she called it. I’d smile at her when she talked. I’d ask questions. I’d tell her that we shared things, even when we didn’t. I kept her talking.

“I feel so rude, what’s your name, mister? I didn’t ask.”

“Nolan.” I lied again.

“Nolan, nice to meet you. I’m Maggie. It was a real pleasure talking, but I got to get home. I got kids and a husband to feed.”

She walked out of the deli and got into a beat up green pickup. She didn’t look back at me, even though I thought she would. Maggie. Maggie in the yellow faded sundress. Maggie with the homemade bag made from the shirts of her oldest son. Maggie who close up smelled like flowery soap and a little bit of sweat, not enough to drink but enough to make you pay attention.

Maggie would be the first one I’d kill.

Horror Marginalia: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” & Who Deserves the Horror

One of the things I admire about Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is its refusal to explain much of the film’s horrors.

We don’t get any backstory for why the Family is batshit crazy. We don’t get an explanation for why Leatherface is wearing the faces and skins of other people (and, for that matter, we don’t get any explanation for why those faces change throughout the film). We don’t get any explanation for the decrepit grandfather who’s basically a corpse. We get very little justification for what’s going on.

The film also avoids justifying why the teenagers in the van are the recipients of the horror. They’re just the owners of some really dumb luck, they show up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they pay for it at the end of sledgehammers and chainsaws.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t decide for itself (and for its audience) why the horrors in it exist and are deserved. The horrors here aren’t the result of sins that slasher films fetishize: they’re just in the world, waiting for someone to turn over the rock and expose them to the light.

It’s one of the most important features of the film. No one deserves the horror. Not the teenagers. Not the insane family. The horror just is. It will do what it does.

And it will go on.