James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
James: Halloween is coming up.
Semaj: Time for horror movies!
James: What are your favorites
Semaj: Out now? Probably “The Greasy Strangler.”
James: That movie is sick! I mean, bad! I mean bad as in Michael Jackson “Bad” Meaning awesome!
Semaj: Speaking of Michael, the Landis-directed “Thriller” video is a piece of classic horror.
James: The only time Michael let the inner monster come out.
Semaj: Landis also did “An American Werewolf in London.” Speaking of eighties stuff, how about Joe Dante’s “The Burbs,” with Corey Feldman and Tom Hanks?
James: And that guy from the Altman films as the villain.
Semaj: Henry Gibson. He’s in “Nashville” and “The Long Goodbye” as well as “Magnolia,” where he plays William H. Macy’s rival for that younger man’s affection.
James: Of course, because PT Anderson worships Altman.
Semaj: Anyway, we’re supposed to be talking about horror films.
James: OK, my favorites of late: “The Babadook.” The kid was incredible, and the idea of the mom as a monster . . . nothing scarier. “The Conjuring 2” . . .
Semaj: I had three friends walk out of that film because they were so scared.
James: Why? I find those “Conjuring” films to be more fun than anything. The camerawork is awesome.
Semaj: I guess they said that they had experienced hauntings like the ones in the movie.
James: Ummm, OK, strange friends…
Semaj: No shit, but I guess those films are based on real experiences.
James: Yeah, but so was “The Exorcist.”
Semaj: Well, maybe it was! I had friends perform exorcisms.
James: What are you talking about, dude?
Semaj: Hubert Selby, Jr. — who wrote “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream” asked a young Richard Price (“Clockers,” “The Night Of”) to help him perform an exorcism.
James: If you could see my face right now, it would be the open-mouthed emoji, like, “WTF are you saying?” You’re supposed to be the sane, smart one of us, and you’re talking like a freak.
Semaj: Well, speaking of scary, I’d say the documentaries “Jesus Camp” and “Hell House” are as scary as anything. Child indoctrination and religious-based hate in the form of a haunted house . . . wow.
James: Come on, man! I wanna talk about real horror films! Like “It Follows”! That one’s just amazing — a great new premise for the horror genre that has sex as the underlying dynamic of a teenage centered haunting/possession film.
Semaj: Then there’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone in the Night.” Boom — the vampire genre gets turned on its head! It’s Iranian —although shot in Los Angeles — and black and white. And it features a subtle, female, skateboarding vampire who listens to Lionel Richie? What else could you ask for?
James: And what about “The Witch”? That shit was the most historically accurate horror film ever made!
Semaj: Well, the director spent something like five years prepping for it, studying old witch texts, and building the shack in the film according to period-specific techniques, as well as growing the fucking grass so it looked accurate to the period! The grass!
James: Forget the accuracy, that witch was terrifying. Grinding up that little baby . . .
Semaj: Shhhhh! No spoilers, dude!
James: Fine, and what about those psycho little kids? They were scary as hell. And the talking goat, and the crow pecking at the boob . . .
Semaj: Okay, okay, let’s talk about classic horror. What are your faves?
James: Easy. “Nightmare On Elm Street.” Boom — a young Johnny Depp in a crop-top gets sucked into a bed and killed.
Semaj: Nightmares come to life. Good concept. But a burn victim as the villain, that’s a little dicey.
James: Yeah, I know, it’s always hard to come up with a villain without offending someone.
Semaj: “Friday the 13th”: a crazy mom in the woods killing all the sexualized young people showing their boobs and trying to get it on.
James: A young Kevin bacon gets fucked up in a bunk bed.
Semaj: Jason is hardly even in the first one.
James: I love the cut away shots of the trees. They’re these moody shots straight out of “Twin Peaks”! Except that it was made a decade before “Twin Peaks.”
Semaj: And the legend of Jason’s death is reminiscent of the myth behind Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight.”
James: What’s the myth behind the song?
Semaj: Get with it, dude. It’s about a drowning at a camp that Phil Collins supposedly witnessed when he was a kid. Eminem raps about it too.
James: The hockey mask didn’t come until the later films.
Semaj: Number 4 has Cristina Glover and a young Corey Feldman!
James: Speaking of Feldman, there is his great turn as a young Rambo-inspired vampire hunter in the original sexy/contemporary vampire film, Joel Schumacher’s “The Lost Boys.”
Semaj: Love that film: the sexy saxophone player with the greased-up torso and ponytail; young Kiefer Sutherland as the bleached hair leader of the bloodsuckers, who are part punk, part motorcycle gang, part cult; and the introduction of the Coreys! Corey Haim and Corey Feldman — what a phenomenon!
James: “Jaws” and the first “Alien”! They’re not exactly horror films because they have settings that are unusual for horror — space and the beach — but I think “Jaws” and “Alien” are horror films in disguise.
Semaj: Yeah, “Jaws” is basically Ibsen’s “The Enemy of the People” with a man-eating shark in the center of the struggle between economics and ethics.
James: And “Alien” is basically “Jaws” in space.
Semaj: With the most incredible production and creature design ever!
James: How about “Halloween”?
Semaj: Michael Meyers is as cold of a killer as you can get. And Jamie Lee Curtis acts her young heart out.
James: “The Shining” . . .
Semaj: Of course, a masterpiece. That’s the one film where I finally understood why some directors do a million takes. The camera operator explained that when Kubrick had the actors do 40-plus takes, for the first 10 takes they would be preforming the way they had intended to, and on the next 10 takes they would loosen up because they weren’t thinking about it as much. After that, they would begin to get tired and do it with less energy, a kind of carefree approach, and then finally they would lose their bearings and just do it over the top. So, by doing it that way Kubrick always had a variety of options: the more grounded version, the detached version, and the over-the-top version – which they probably used quite a bit, especially in Nicholson’ scenes.
James: Okay, but the best for last: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”!
Semaj: That’s Nicholas Winding Refn’s favorite film.
James: I know! Why? His movies aren’t really like that film at all.
Semaj: It’s because “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” doesn’t follow any rules. It’s its own thing. It’s an experience that couldn’t be captured anywhere else.
James: It’s so wild, crazy, and brutal. The images are incredible.
Semaj: It’s more than a horror film — like a glimpse into the abyss.