Interview: Dustin Putman on The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween

Posted on October 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm

It was a special treat to interview my friend Dustin Putman about his new book, The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween. As horror director Scott Derrickson says on the cover, “Dustin Putman knows the horror genre inside and out!”

What’s the first scary movie you remember seeing?photo-3

A lot of my early childhood memories run together, but I do distinctly remember watching “Friday the 13th“ with my older brother, Rudy, one Saturday afternoon shortly after my family got our first VCR. I must have been four or five. It was also quite a personal triumph for me the first time I watched the macabre 1985 Disney sequel, “Return to Oz,” by myself. What an amazingly creepy film! Disney likely would never release something like that nowadays.

There are a lot of different kinds of scary — suspense, psychological, gory, monster. What makes each one work and which do you like best?

The great thing about the genre is that all of the above can work as long as there is a definite vision behind them, they are done well, and the filmmakers do not insult their audience. Passionate horror fans are actually quite discriminating, and when one works it can be one of the great movie-watching experiences. Supernatural horror can be fascinating and scary because it deals with the unknown—things that often cannot be explained. There is really nothing like psychological horror, especially from the 1970s, when studios were making films for adults rather than teenagers. 1973’s “The Exorcist,” and that same year’s unforgettably complex, chilling “Don’t Look Now,” directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, are two of my favorites. 1973 must have been a banner year. I also do still have a soft spot for slasher flicks, as well, probably because while growing up those were the ones I most gravitated toward. I should say there is a VERY fine line between a smart, scary, suspense-laden slasher and a lazy, derivative, throwaway one, which is what they tended to become as a result of the success of 1978’s “Halloween.”

There are a lot of horror/thriller movie series, including “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween.”  Which is your favorite?

When people ask me what my favorite horror movie is, I always have the same answer: John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” It is pretty much the epitome of perfection to me in cinema, a low-budget production made by talented young artists that relied on atmosphere, classical building of tension, memorable characters, frightening situations, fluid camerawork, and a brilliant instrumental score to tell a simple story brilliantly. It should also be mentioned that “Halloween” has little violence and almost no onscreen blood. These kinds of films quickly became more gory and almost pessimistic. “Halloween” cared about its characters and delivered a thrilling, inspiring experience.

Who is the all-time greatest horror movie villain and why?  Which one has the best motive?

I will have to piggyback on my previous answer and say the killer from “Halloween,” Michael Myers. Before the sequel devised the whole brother-sister angle between he and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Rob Zombie tried to throw cockamamie explanations into his inferior 2007 remake, the most terrifying thing about Michael was that there was no motive at all. As psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) explains in the film, he is “purely and simply evil.” This is much scarier to me because Michael isn’t just a mentally disturbed man, but, for all intents and purposes, the boogeyman.

Who is the all-time greatest horror movie director?

There are a lot of directors I admire, usually from different periods in their careers. 1970s/’80s-era John Carpenter is certainly up there (in little more than a decade’s time, he made “Halloween,” “The Fog,” “The Thing,” “Christine,” “Prince of Darkness,” and “They Live”). Wes Craven is responsible for two of my favorites, “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream.” More recently, Ti West is, for me, a modern-day master. His movies are all different in story, but very specifically his own style. It is quite telling that every film of his that has been released, to date, made it into my book, “The Fright File,” including 2005’s underseen gem “The Roost,” 2007’s even more underseen thriller “Trigger Man,” 2009’s “The House of the Devil,” and 2011’s “The Innkeepers.”

Without giving it away, which movie has the best twist ending?

There are two that come to mind, and they are both impossible to forget for anyone who has seen them: 1983’s “Sleepaway Camp” and 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.” I can’t give them away, obviously, but they were both impeccably constructed in a way that surprised upon first viewing and hold up on successive revisits even after you know the “truth.”

TFF_FrontCoverOnlyHow do American horror movies differ from those made in other countries?

My temptation is to say that horror movies from other countries are smarter than American ones, but this would actually be a gross generalization. There are plenty of outstanding U.S.-made horror efforts, and a lot of foreign titles that aren’t very good. One distinction, I think, is that genre movies from other countries tend to be more courageous and cerebral and trend-setting, while American horror is perhaps more concerned with the bottom line and trying to recreate past successes. This is why we see so many remakes these days, and went through a phase a few years back where every Japanese horror title was being redone in the States.

Horror movies get remade a lot — which is the best remake?  Which is the worst?

Best remakes: 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead,” directed by Zack Snyder, did a fabulous job of updating the story and putting a fresh spin on the subject while still adhering to the spirit of the Romero classic. Also, I thought 2010’s “Let Me In,” a remake of “Let the Right One In,” actually improved upon the acclaimed Swedish original by adding underlying layers involving the political climate and so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.

Worst remakes: 2005’s “The Fog” and 2006’s “The Wicker Man.” Both of these were disasters, missing the entire points of their predecessors. Every possible bad decision one could imagine seemed to be made tenfold when these updates were put in front of the camera. At least Rob Zombie’s “Halloween,” which I am not a fan of, had an undeniable vision behind it. “The Fog” and “The Wicker Man” were two examples of remakes made by committee, with zero creative insight.

What do you love most about horror?

The horror genre is one of a kind in the way that it can play so heavily on the viewer’s deeper emotions. An effective horror film can be an incredibly cathartic experience, and a whole lot of fun. Also, because many of them deal with very extreme situations and ideas, there is more room to explore different themes and use fantastical or frightful subject matter as metaphor for larger universal topics. This is why, I believe, so much has been written on the subject of horror; its scope, and where filmmakers can take their stories, is boundless. 

Dustin’s reviews of hundreds of movies in every genre are available at

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Slate’s Movie Club

Posted on January 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens brought together an enormously engaging and thoughtful group for the annual “movie club” round-up discussion of the year in film.
Reviewing films is a lot of fun, but one of the drawbacks is that we have to react so quickly and specifically. I like the way Slate goes beyond the top 10 lists and “best actor,” “best screenplay” summaries of the year with a very robust conversation about the patterns discernible with a bit of distance and context and the opportunity to adjust and revise one’s views in light of a second viewing or just more time to think.
Dan Kois responded to a challenge to explain why he was the only participant who included “Black Swan” on his top 10 list, provided a hilarious flow chart with his reaction to the “trashy greatness” of the film. And I was thrilled by his shout-outs to two performances I thought only I cherished this year, Ginnifer Goodwin in “Ramona and Beezus” and Kathryn Hahn in “How Do You Know” — two movies I thought were badly underrated by critics and audiences.
“Inception” is a film that benefited from a some further time to consider it. Matt Zoller Seitz led off by noting that that critics reviewed some of the year’s other mind-bendy movies by saying that they were more effective than the high-profile “Inception.”

Clearly “Inception” is to 2010 what “Avatar” was to 2009 and “Titanic” was to 1997 and what the original “Star Wars” was to 1977–the box-office juggernaut that many critics find lacking, perhaps egregiously shallow and overrated, but that cast such a powerful spell over millions that they keep invoking it over and over to call attention to their own pets.

Stevens responded

“Inception” was more a series of sensations than a movie–the filmic equivalent of an interactive haunted house where you’re blindfolded and someone thrusts your hand into a bowl of peeled-grape “eyeballs.” Six months later, all that remains are the sensations, which is why the Hans Zimmer button brings the entire Inception experience back in a single BrAAAAAHMMMM.

I was most intrigued by the debate about Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” While friends I respect like Dustin Putman loved the movie, a tone poem that follows (I won’t say it’s “about”) a disaffected movie star and his young daughter, I found its neurasthenic preciousness hard to take. So I was very interested to see what members of the Movie Club had to say.
My views are most aligned with Dana Stevens: “‘Somewhere,’ to me, was a lovingly crafted, impeccably acted, but vanishingly slight little movie.” Stephanie Zacharek responded

Coppola has the lightest touch of any American filmmaker working, but she also has very distinct fingerprints. Her sense of humor is oblique, when it’s not downright odd. There’s that sequence in Somewhere where Stephen Dorff’s lost, disaffected movie star has been slathered with a chilly-looking mashed-potato substance as a prelude for some age-makeup that’s being designed for him. And Coppola and her D.P., Harris Savides, train the camera on that droopy white face (we hear Dorff’s noisy breathing on the soundtrack) for an inordinately long time, moving in verrrrry slowly. I don’t know that there’s an earth-shattering statement there demanding to be “gotten.” It’s like a knock-knock joke reinvented as a koan.

As with Dustin Putman’s review, it didn’t deepen my appreciation for the film, but it did support and deepen my appreciation for the critics and for criticism as a calling. Onward to 2011!

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WAFCA Movie Award Winners 2010

Posted on December 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

And the Washington Area Film Critic Awards go to…
Best Film?: “The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher, “The Social Network”
Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, “The Fighter”
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Social Network
Best Original Screenplay: “Inception
Best Animated Feature: “Toy Story 3Toy-Story-3-Woody-Movie-Poster.jpg
Best Documentary: “Exit Through the Gift Shop
Best Foreign Language Film: “Biutiful
Best Art Direction: “Inception
Best Cinematography: “Inception
Best Score: “Inception
Best Acting Ensemble: “The Town
Many thanks to my dear friends Brandon Fibbs, Dustin Putman, Patrick Jennings, and our fearless leader Tim Gordon for making this a pleasure.

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A Month of Halloween Horror from The Movie Boy

Posted on October 1, 2008 at 4:00 pm

The Movie Boy Dustin Putman knows horror, and he salutes it this month with a new review every day.
For the entirety of October, will be updated daily with all-new content, including at least thirty-one full-length reviews of horror pictures–a collection of classics, lesser-known gems, and longtime favorites–that I have never previously covered; an additional smorgasbord of fresh (but not necessarily positive) capsule reviews; and an ongoing blog where I will tackle any number of horror-related subjects. Maybe I can help readers come up with ideas on what’s worth watching this October. Or maybe I can help them get in the mood for a holiday filled with ghosts, goblins, costumes, candy, and things that go bump in the night. Either way, the goal is to entertain and inform both die-hard horror fans, as well as the heretofore uninitiated who are interested in taking that first dip into a too-frequently underappreciated category of cinema. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all (myself included) learn a little something, too.
I am not a horror fan, but Putman’s first choice is perfect, the silent classic Nosferatu. As he says, it may not be the first horror film, but it is the first influential one. It is essentially “Dracula,” but director F.W. Murnau did not want to pay royalties, so they changed the names. The mysterious Max Schreck starred (there is an urban legend that he really was a vampire — amusingly explored in “Shadow of the Vampire” with Willem Dafoe as Schreck) and it is every bit as creepy as any CGI-enhanced state-of-the-art special effects horror movie made today, nearly 80 years later.

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