I sincerely hope I haven’t alienated my handful of regular readers (I love you!) with my ridiculously spotty posting of late.


In theaters.

Coraline would have scared the crap out me when I was a kid, and even now, when I’m pushing toward thirty (oh god), it jangles my nerves more than I’d care to admit. Too many supposedly scary movies rely on cheap jack-in-the-box shocks and splattery gore, but Coraline understands real horror, burrowing into the psyche to play on primal fears and existential dread.

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s inappropriate for children. To the contrary, if you aren’t a bratty, self-involved little kid (or don’t remember what it’s like to be one, or aren’t still a bit bratty and self-involved), you probably won’t get as much out of Coraline. The warped fairy tale is about growing up, coming to realize that you’re not the center of the universe, even your parents’ universe, and who understands the angst of that lesson better than a kid? The genius of the movie, based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book, is that it respects kids enough to take that lesson seriously. The horror ties into the attendant angst and fears, honoring them and confronting them and earning the cathartic payoff.

The Day of the Triffids

By John Wyndham. Published in 1951.

I remember thinking, after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s widely ridiculed The Happening, that his choice to make plants the villains was a fatal flaw. Even the most sensitive allergy sufferer isn’t going to recoil in mortal terror from the image of a tree releasing pollen into the air. And carnivorous plants, as every scientifically inclined kid soon accepts with disappointment, are much more exciting in theory than practice. Plants, I believed, simply can’t be scary.

But I was wrong. Decades ago, author John Wyndham made predatory plants a key element in his post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids. (Forgive me. I’m still on a post-apocalyptic kick.) Wyndham succeeds where Shyamalan fails, I believe, because his triffids are still recognizably plants. Rather than giving them wild, goofy powers, Wyndham ratchets up familiar plant traits—poison, digestion of carrion—and hints that the triffids’ truly bizarre attribute—their ability to “walk,” however awkwardly, for limited distances—likely developed from reckless genetic modification. It’s just this side of plausible, just enough to burrow its way into the imagination.

Even more effective, though, is that triffids don’t become a serious threat until people are already rendered vulnerable. The “apocalypse” of the novel is not a single event but a series: one catastrophe paving the way for another and then another. The initial catastrophe—the meteor shower (or was it?) that blinds virtually the entire population—is perhaps the least plausible but certainly the most nightmarish: what it lacks it raw credibility it makes up for with its play on primal fears. Yet Triffids never feels exploitative. Wyndham’s writing is coolly matter-of-fact, and he excels at merely suggesting horrors, giving just enough to let the reader’s imagination run wild. The result is a weirdly reserved yet oddly effective exploration of the breakdown of human civilization—compelling, thought-provoking, and quintessentially British.

Man on Wire


Man on Wire marks the first time in years that a movie has made me feel physically ill. It’s not violent, and it’s not filmed with herky-jerky camerawork. It simply documents the true story of a guerilla wirewalker who managed to pull off an astonishing performance in the mid-1970s on a wire between the Twin Towers. There is no real footage of that feat, just a few distant shots and some striking still photographs, so most of the film consists of wirewalker Philippe Petit and his friends and co-conspirators describing the preparations for the event. And that gives viewers more than enough time to contemplate just how appallingly risky this whole venture was, giving me a bad case of vicarious vertigo.

Fallout 3

On Xbox 360.

I wish I could say that, while temporarily living the life of an anxiety-ridden, cold-weather-hating shut-in, I took the opportunity to complete an afghan or immerse myself in French New Wave films or organize the papers stacked on my desk or do something else productive, to quote my ever-productive mother. Sadly, I did none of those things. Instead, I spent an inordinate amount of time blowing the heads off terrifying, gun-toting mutants.

The Xbox is primarily Sean’s toy. Deprived as a child of all but the most educational computer games, I have no talent or affinity for the first-person-shooters he and his friends sometimes play together online. But occasionally, one of the video games hooks me in spite of myself, and I, too, am hypnotized by the screen, holding my breath, twitching my thumbs, and feeling very, very dorky.

The hook for Fallout 3 is the setting: a desolate, post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. I find an odd, Planet of the Apes–type pleasure in exploring familiar landmarks through a nightmarish looking glass, but beyond that, post-apocalyptic stories fascinate me. There’s a perverse kind of optimism in imagining a world gone utterly, completely wrong in which hope, somehow, still endures. The water may be radioactive, the mutants may be vicious, but people are still cobbling together communities—reduced in circumstances, perhaps, but surviving, in a bleak, sci-fi twist on the Little House books I loved as a kid.