By Kyle Osborne
If you want to find a diamond, you go to a jeweler. If you want a great recipe, you ask an experienced chef. And if you want to find a scary movie, well, just ask Dustin. In his new book, ‘The Fright File:150 Films To See Before Halloween,’ Dustin Putman puts a lifetime of experience between the covers. A knowledgeable film critic, in general, Putman has always been especially fond of the frightful. The walls of his home are filled with DVD’s and Blu-rays–and a sizable portion of his collection is devoted to things that go bump in the night.
And here’s the surprising thing: for a guy who has spent thousands of hours watching scary stuff, he’s about the most normal, nice guy you’ll ever meet. Not the least bit weird for a man who has seen more blood than an ER doctor, more cuts than a Congressional budget and more gore than a prison cafeteria cook. Entertainment Or Die decided to pick Dustin’s brain like an ill-fated extra in a George Romero flick–here’s what he had to say:
Kyle Q: What is your earliest memory of being scared?
Dustin A: Good question. I am not sure if I can pinpoint my very first early memory of being scared. I started watching horror movies when I was around four years old, when my parents got our first VCR. I had a teenage brother at the time who was already into the genre, so he definitely was the one who got me into it. More than anything, I remember horror being fun. I would watch “Friday the 13th” and movies like that all the time, and a story I talk about in the book was that my parents allowed me to watch these films as long as I knew that they were make-believe, with actors and make-up effects and all that. It is because of this that I became so interested in the technical side of filmmaking as an art. But back to your question, I have two early memories of being very scared. One was, oddly enough, the 1985 Disney sequel called “Return to Oz,” which freaked me out with the scenes set in the mental hospital and Princess Mombi’s gallery of disembodied heads. The other memory I have is of being terrified and running out of the room every time this Busch Gardens commercial would come on TV advertising the then-new “Big Bad Wolf” roller-coaster. This must have been the mid-1980s, and it both freaked me out and intrigued me.
Q: Do you get scared NOW when you watch scary movies? Do you check the closets and under the bed? Can a horror movie be “Great” or even “good” if it doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you?
A:Movies can definitely still scare me, but it doesn’t happen quite as often as I’d like–and, thankfully, I never feel the need to check the closets or look under my bed. A recent one that really got under my skin was 2012’s “Sinister,” to the point where I have wanted to watch it again on Blu-ray, but keep holding out because I’m nervous to revisit it! There is also a difference between a film that can make you jump, and one that stays with you after the end credits have rolled. As long as it is well-made and I am involved in the characters, I can certainly appreciate genre works that don’t strictly frighten me.
Q: What is it about the horror genre that you love? What do you say to people who flatly state, “I hate scary movies”? Can you convert them?
A: I do not understand people who don’t like the horror genre, just like I am not going to pretend I understand people who dislike Halloween. Then again, to each their own. I am not a huge fan of, say, westerns, but I can still appreciate them when they are done well. Horror indisputably does not get enough credit. Beyond the cathartic thrill of watching them when they are good, there are often so many layers and underlying themes and ideas and imagination to them–far more than most other genres. It seems strange to me, then, when people write them off as trash, or somehow a lesser cinematic form. I think the opposite.
Q: You’ve included 150 movies–I’m sure you could have listed twice as many–what were your basic criteria. Was movie #151 a heart breaker to leave out of the book? Perhaps there’ll be a Vol. 2?
A: I can tentatively announce that there is a plan for a Volume 2 in about two or three years. The only criteria I had for a movie’s inclusion in the book was that I had to be passionate about it, and it had to be the kind of film I would love to watch or discover around the autumn/Halloween season. It is not a comprehensive, be-all-end-all listing of my top 150 horror films, but simply ones that I chose to write about. I already have a long list of titles for a volume 2, so if your favorite isn’t in the book, it will very likely be in the next one.
Q: What is the most over rated scary movie? The most underrated? Unfairly maligned?
A: This is a tough question, but such a fascinating topic. I tend to really love or at least appreciate most of the “classic” genre pictures, so I will mention a relatively recent one that a lot of people liked and I didn’t: 2007’s “The Mist,” based on the Stephen King novella. It isn’t that I hate it, but the ending (which I won’t give away for those who haven’t seen it) rubs me so wrong and is so emotionally dishonest that it negates the rest of the film for me. Even more recently than that, “World War Z” received far more positive notices than I would have expected. Maybe because the production had been so troubled viewers lowered their expectations. For me, it was watered-down to the point of annoyance and was a huge missed opportunity. There are so many better zombie movies that I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a mediocre one, no matter how big the budget and scope are.
As far as underrated, 2005’s “Dark Water,” directed by Walter Salles, came out in the midst of the Japanese remake craze, soon after “The Ring” and “The Grudge,” and I can remember seeing it opening night in a theater full of obnoxious 15-year-olds who were there to socialize and text rather than watch a movie. It was released in the summer and was PG-13, so the assumption would be that it might cater to a teenybopper crowd and rely on cheap jump scares and zero nuance. Imagine my surprise, then, to find a handsome, intelligent, thoughtful, eerie, psychologically complex throwback to adult-minded 1970s films like “The Exorcist” and “Don’t Look Now,” with what I believe is a career-best performance from Jennifer Connelly. That she did not receive an Oscar nomination for this film is mind-boggling to me. It deserves to find the audience it never rightfully got.
And for movies that are unfairly maligned, let me go with three. 2010’s much-delayed “Case 39” has a lot more to it than critics gave it credit for. The 1998 “Psycho” remake is actively hated in certain circles solely because Gus Van Sant attempted a provocative, nearly shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock. If no 1960 version existed, though, it wouldn’t have been an issue and might have been able to stand on its own. I see it as an interesting experiment, cover piece and loving tribute to the original Master of Suspense. Finally, 1982’s “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has carried a stigma with it for over thirty years just because it tells a different story and doesn’t have Michael Myers as the villain. Lately, the tides have slowly begun to turn and it has attained a passionate cult following. It’s still my second-favorite in the “Halloween” franchise, a creepy, stylish, off-kilter ode to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that, had it been successful, was supposed to be the first in a planned annual Halloween-related horror anthology series. If only.
Q: Which horror films do you watch and re-watch each year?
A: I love to rewatch my favorites every few years, films like “The Exorcist,” “Poltergeist,” Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” “Don’t Look Now,” and “Creepshow.” The two that I make a point of seeing every October are 2009’s nonlinear, “Pulp Fiction”-esque anthology “Trick ‘r Treat,” and 1978’s “Halloween.”
Q: The desert isle question–you can only take 3 horror movies with you–which 3?
A: The first choice is a no-brainer–John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” my all-time favorite horror movie. I adore every last thing about it and could basically recite it back to you at this point. My second choice is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which never loses any of its effectiveness and always offers something new to discover with each viewing. Finally, my #3 desert isle choice would be “Pet Sematary.” It would give me nightmares, to be sure, but at least I’d know I was alone and the beyond-horrifying, spinal meningitis-inflicted Zelda couldn’t get me.