I love a conceptual writing project. I wasn’t crazy about “Julie & Julia” but I dug the idea of the blog it was partly based on, The Julie/Julia Project, in which writer Julie Powell attempted to cook (and then write about) every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one year. I got a kick out of former “Mystery Science Theater 3000” producer and star Kevin Murphy’s book “A Year at the Movies,” a similarly rigorous and grueling experiment, this one playing out at movie theaters around the world, as Murphy attempted to see a publicly exhibited movie every single day for 365 straight days. There’s something so beautiful and so pure (and maybe a tiny bit crazy) about this kind of endeavor. In a world of instant gratification and constant distraction it requires intensity, focus, and extreme dedication.
Still, the intensity, focus and extreme dedication of those aforementioned projects pale in comparison to the one undertaken by Brian Collins when, in 2007, he launched Horror Movie a Day, his attempt to watch exactly that — a horror movie a day — every single day, for however long he felt like it. At first, Collins, who works as an editor by day and also contributes to Badass Digest, thought he’d quit after a year. But he enjoyed the routine so much one year became two, and then three. All told, he updated HMAD regularly for 6 years and 2500 horror movies before he finally ended the blog earlier this week (at least as a daily concern; he promises it will carry on as “Horror Movie Some Days”).
The momentous occasion — and Collins’ truly impressive archive of horror criticism — seemed like a milestone worth commemorating and discussing. So yesterday I spoke with Collins about how HMAD came about, whether he ever came close to missing a day, and how the entire project changed his writing and his attitude toward the horror genre.
Okay Brian, how long has it been since you watched a horror movie?
I actually ended up watching one the night I technically stopped! My wife threw a surprise “wake” for the site, got a whole bunch of friends to do a tribute video, ordered a cake with a tombstone on it, and then we watched a special 16mm presentation of “Halloween: H20” that lacked the matting. The movie is supposed to be matted to scope (2.35:1) but there are prints that are completely open (1.33:1), so not only can you see the boom mic throughout, you can even see the operator on occasion. But that was Sunday night. Haven’t watched one since.
So that’s about 48 hours now. How do you feel? Are you jonesing or relieved?
Definitely relieved. Work got busy today and usually I’d be like “Aw come on, I need to write!” But now once I got my real work done I could relax a bit instead of diving into my “other job.” However, I just loaded up Netflix to watch Adventure Time (which folks have been telling me to watch for almost 3 years now) and damned if I didn’t check the horror section’s new arrivals out of habit.
I know you’ve talked about it before, but can you explain how the project first got started?
Sure! I noticed one day that I had the same three Netflix rentals — this was back before Instant, everything was disc based — for like four months, meaning I could have just bought those three movies for less than I paid to just rent them and have them sit on my coffee table. And they all happened to be horror, and I started thinking “There’s no reason I couldn’t have found time for these by now.” Sleep and work only cover about 2/3rds of the day; that leaves a lot of time for other stuff if you don’t dilly dally. Plus I had just started writing the occasional review for Bloody Disgusting, so I figured I should start watching more horror movies that I had missed along the way. Long train of thought later, I decided it was possible to watch one movie every day, and after about 3-4 weeks I decided to write about them too, and secured the blogspot domain. At first it was just literally a few notes about each one; they would be like three paragraphs tops. But as the site started attracting more readers I started taking the writing part more seriously.
What made you take the jump from watching to watching and writing?
I forget, to be honest. I think there were some theatrical releases that I had to write up reviews for Bloody Disgusting, and a couple of new DVDs that he needed reviews for, so eventually it was like “Well I might as well just write ’em all up.”
Six years is a long time — nonetheless, why stop now? Was six years part of a grand plan all along?
Originally I just figured I’d do it for a year. But that time came and I was still having fun and there were still a lot of older movies I hadn’t seen, so I just figured I’d go until I got sick of it. I also came up with the finale: when I couldn’t even remember the movie I started with (“Return to Horror High,” co-starring Mr. George Clooney), it’d be time to wrap it up. And honestly, that time came in like 2010 [laughs]. I remembered like two things about it. But I kept going anyway.
However, during that time, some people got laid off from my company and I absorbed some of their responsibilities, so the time I had to work on HMAD during my downtime there was ever-shrinking, and so I started doing more and more of it from home. As a result, my non-horror free time was lessened, and it just got to the point where it’s like “My DVR is always full, I haven’t seen any of the non-horror movies that are playing, I haven’t taken my wife to dinner for a while (and, yes, I still watched horror movies on our very rare trips), my Xbox has become a Netflix Instant viewing device and nothing else….” So I realized it was time to call it a day.
That was in around February of 2012. I love even numbers and milestones and such, and I had already passed 2000 reviews, so I said I’d stop at 2500. Figured it’d be lame to just up and quit some day, so I gave everyone a year’s heads up!
You mentioned your wife. You were married before you started this thing?
Oh yeah, we got married a couple years prior.
What did she think of the project?
She probably would have liked if I didn’t take it so seriously or if I had wrapped it up sooner, but she was really great about it — watching the movies with me quite often until recently when she got a new job and didn’t have as much time to waste on horror movies. Also if I’d shout “This is the worst movie I’ve ever watched!” she’d remind me that I had just said that a week before about a different movie. Also, she threw the surprise “wake” and planned it all out, so she must have some fondness for the whole thing. Or me.
And in six years of horror movies, did you ever miss a day because of, I don’t know, an act of God? Broken DVD? Cancelled screening?
I only missed one day. My wife and I went on a trip one week after I started and I gave her one day (of the three). At that time I still wasn’t writing about each film so I could have lied, but yeah, that’s the only time I missed one. There were a few other close calls — I remember we went to Disneyland to see my family who had come out for a visit, and I had to race home because I’m a dummy and neglected to watch one in the morning before we went to the park. Got in the house at like 11:56 and threw something in just in time (the “rule” was I had to start the movie between 12:01 am and 11:59 pm). Every now and then I’d have to switch movies because of a faulty DVD or whatever, but after a while it just became second nature. I knew to watch ASAP after getting up in the morning — or starting it before I went to bed, as long as it was after midnight — so I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck somewhere without a horror movie.
The saddest thing had to be at Comic-Con in 2009 or 2010; I didn’t have a portable DVD player yet, just a regular one to hook up to the TV. And the video input on my hotel’s TV didn’t work. So I had to ask for a new room, and explain why to a very confused hotel clerk who was probably already sick of us Comic-Con folk. “The TV is broken?” “No, the TV works fine, it’s the video input that’s broken. I have to watch horror movies every day…”
Luckily, it was Wednesday and people hadn’t all gotten in yet, so they still had unoccupied rooms. I assume whoever got my first room didn’t need the video input.
Hopefully they weren’t running SciFi-Movie-A-Day.blogspot.com. A college professor of min gave me some interesting advice. When I told him I wanted to be a film critic or professor or something like that, and asked him what I needed to do, he recommended two things: 1) Go to grad school and 2) write every day. You’ve had a rather unique opportunity to test that advice in action. Would you agree with it? How did writing every day affect your writing?
Well I definitely got better, that’s for sure. It’s worth noting that I never really wrote critiques before beyond a couple of articles for my school newspaper that are probably unreadable. And I cringe whenever I look at a review from like 2007. But once I got into my groove and shed the “Look at me!” snarkiness, I found it to be pretty enjoyable, especially when I was still finding lots of gems and finally seeing classics I had missed. But after a while, I don’t know. I think maybe some time off might have helped? I don’t know if the movies started blending together or if it was just my lack of training, but I started finding it harder to write about whatever “Hostel” or “Paranormal Activity” ripoff I was watching. Not really writer’s block, because I’d still find plenty to say about “Community” or whatever else I was writing about for Badass Digest. Maybe there’s a reason no one sticks to one genre every day. So write every day, just not about the same thing!
Was it hard perpetually finding new movies to review?
It was harder finding movies I wanted to review. Netflix Instant was great in terms always have something, but it also increased how many bland, forgettable movies I was seeing. I’d never go out of my way to even queue up the disc for a lot of that junk, but when it’s right there it’s like, “OK, fine. It’ll do.” Which is part of why I wanted to stop — there’s something kind of soul-crushing about spending 90 minutes watching and then another 1-2 hours writing about why you shouldn’t watch this movie no sane person was going to watch anyway. It’s like “Oh, yeah, thanks BC, I guess I won’t watch ‘Children of the Corn 7,’ because I didn’t even know there was a ‘Children of the Corn 3-6.'” But before Instant, yeah, there were days where it was kind of tough if I was between disc rentals.
So what are some really obscure gems from that pile of who-knew-they-even-existed that you’d actually recommend?
The one I always mention is “Cathy’s Curse,” but it’s not a “good” movie — it’s a “so bad it’s good” classic that goes out of its way to keep the audience from understanding anything. In terms of real good movies, “Home Movie” is one of the best “found footage” movies, which is even more impressive when it stars a recognizable guy (Adrian Pasdar) and thus no one can be fooled for a second.
I also love “Cold Prey,” a Norwegian slasher movie that Anchor Bay put out a while ago, but apparently it didn’t sell very well because they didn’t bother with the (already made) sequel. It’s actually just coming out in the U.S. in a few weeks from Shout! Factory, and it’s just as good as the original. There’s also a ’70s movie called “Raw Meat” (a.k.a. “Death Line”) that I truly loved. It’s about a cannibal in the London subways, being investigated, very casually, by Donald Pleasence. Highly recommended. Ditto “Messiah of Evil,” another laid back ’70s movie about a girl looking for her missing dad.
And after watching 2500 of them every single day for six years do you still enjoy horror movies?
Oh hell yeah. My penultimate movie was “Stitches,” a killer clown movie from Ireland, and it was pretty great. And I’m stoked to see “Evil Dead” this Friday. If anything I’ve gotten more appreciation for the C-level movies of the world. Critics will do their “Worst of the Year” lists and put like, “Underworld 4” or “Resident Evil: Random Subtitle” on there, and I’m like “Man, you’re so lucky if you think that’s the worst. Those weren’t even the worst movies I saw that week.”