(Photo by Netflix, Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection, and David Goldner / © Queen B Productions / Courtesy Everett Collection)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Dani Bethea lives and breathes the horror genre, and they are more than ready to tell us all just how many frightful and exciting new releases are available to us this season.
Bethea has been featured in several horror-centric outlets. They hosted a panel on Black women in horror for Ghouls Ghouls Ghouls magazine last year, appeared in Jonathan Barkan and Andrew Hawkins’s Mental Health in Horror documentary, are the former Editor-in-Chief of the online zine We Are Horror, and self-publish coverage on Medium.
“The month is young and I’m trying to basically either watch a new film a day or, you know what I mean? This month is just so… It’s a rollercoaster of delight, truly,” they told Rotten Tomatoes in an early-October interview.
Given their year-round expertise in genre and the dozens of titles they watch to celebrate Halloween, Rotten Tomatoes wanted to know what Bethea believes are the scariest moments in movie history: “Oh, that’s hard,” they laughed. “American films… I’m going to definitely say the entirety of all of the trippy imagery from Jacob’s Ladder – all of it. None of it is carefree!”
“And then as far as a great international, Ju-On: The Grudge has always been one of my favorites,” Bethea said. “It’s still, all of these years later, just such a solid film.”
Bethea shared myriad recommendations and reflections that are sure to frighten and bewitch all spooky season long.
Dani Bethea is a pop culture writer with a focus on horror. Their work can be found on Medium, Ghouls Ghouls Ghouls, and Daily Dead, among others. They are the former Editor-in-Chief of the We Are Horror zine. Find Dani on Twitter: @TheDaniBethea.
What was the first horror film to make you scream? Are you squeamish at all?
Not particularly squeamish. However, I guess I will say this, the more realistic the prosthetics, definitely the more I will wince or kind of white knuckle a little bit.
As far as Shudder’s [The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time], I love how they talked about Gerald’s Game. When the main character has to get out of the handcuffs and has to literally deglove their hands from the cuffs. That one is definitely one for the record books.
Hereditary is another iconic film that we were not expecting to see the main character, one, decapitated, and two, the aftermath of the decapitation of her head in the road with the ants crawling all over it! We were not expecting a cut from the mother in mourning to the daughter… That was definitely one that was a visceral oof.
Because it’s a child!
Yeah, we don’t get child deaths often, and usually they are not as… gory or as visceral. So that’s another that I definitely think for sure. I would say the decay and putrefaction aspect of the Candyman reboot was so well done.
The putrefaction slowly starts from his hand and him picking at it, and it’s this weeping wound, and then it just gradually travels up his arm and up his body and if you don’t like that one phobia, what is it called? If you have the fear of holes, and–
Trypophobia – thank you. So that was an odd mixture of where we saw him just slowly dying and the holes and the wounds, and that’s a tough watch if you don’t like that as a visual, seeing the human body just slowly decay. The zombification of Anthony in that movie was just… We don’t get a lot of movies like that often where we see people gradually dying while they’re alive.
You’re reminding me just how grotesque that process is, and that’s what makes it excellent. Right?
Right. Make it phenomenal for the eyes, but terrible for the nightmares.
(Photo by Vertical Entertainment)
We’re both watching and loving Shudder’s Queer for Fear series. What title or titles do you consider essential to the queer horror canon?
I’m going to tell people to avoid They/Them. That was one of the most unnecessary, trite, rote, abominable, weakly written… It just seemed like there was a bulletin board like people were just, I don’t know, taking the sticky notes off and saying, “Okay, let’s put that together, and there’s the movie.”
Checklist first, story second?
Right. It was very half-baked, very underdone. It just seemed like it was the first draft of something that could have been really, really great. So I’m going to tell people to avoid that one like the plague.
But I will say that there are a lot of movies now if they’re not centrally queer in the framing or the premise of the story, that there are a lot more films with queer people now that have characters. I love all the hype that, let’s say, for example, Bodies Bodies Bodies has gotten.
Oh gosh, how can I forget? From Netflix, the three film anthology that came out!
Yes! Fear Street!
Even before Fear Street came out, I don’t think there was a big to-do that the leads and a protagonist was a part of the LGBT+ anything. And it was just like, once that story got rolling in motion, people were like, “Oh, wait a minute, our leads are queer folk. What? No way!” It was the best surprise ever. And then we were obviously rooting for everyone to live even more because we do not want any more “bury your gays” tropes. Nope, we don’t want any more of that.
The sad thing with our current time is that there have been a lot of queer shows that have been getting canceled or have been one-seasoned. First Kill got the one season treatment. Batwoman got canceled. There’s quite a few more, but it seems like if they don’t get the one season treatment, they’re getting pulled from these streaming platforms due to these company mergers and it’s just really chaotic right now. It seems like, for all of those shows we get, it seems like that more we lose.
Is there a movie that you watch every Halloween season?
Ooh, you know what? I have a few.
For the nostalgia, I always try to catch Hocus Pocus at least once. Got to watch Halloween, got to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. Got to catch the original Friday the 13th. I love Miss Voorhees. I live for it. Some others that are just straight-up have-to-watch classics. Well, Trick ‘r Treat, got to catch that one.
Addams Family. That’s another, Addams Family Values. I can literally quote both word for word almost. And then obviously if I can catch all of Universal Monster classics – usually they play Turner Classic Movies or they might come on Svengoolie or something like that, I try to catch them.
If Elvira comes out with a horror marathon, I try to catch that. I cannot miss my girl Elvira. That was actually a true delight. Last year was quite the Elvira year. That was really something special.
Yes! A queer icon.
Yes! And the thing is, right, that we always knew that she was “family,” but to have that just say like, “Yes, and this is my partner and this is how long we’ve been together.” And everybody’s just like, “Okay, we knew.”
(Photo by Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
What’s the hardest review you’ve written so far?
One that was really hard was Amazon Prime’s Them. When it came out, there was a lot of discussion of, what does it mean to have Black horror stories? And then what kind of trauma or traumatic elements are in those stories? And I don’t blame anyone whatsoever for not wanting to see films like that. So whether it be Black stories, queer stories, so on and so forth, where the films have not always been kind to the marginalized folk that are included, I completely understand that.
And I would definitely say when the newest Candyman came out, it seemed like everyone wanted to have some kind of hot take on that movie. And there was also a lot of politicking going on. This was actually the very start of – in online discourse with the banned book movement and even the anti-“woke movie” movement – really targeting a lot of movies that either featured Black people, queer people, women, I mean, pretty much any groups or individuals that never got an opportunity to be the lead or the star. It seemed like those were the films that a certain contingent of the internet were just picking apart, ripping to shreds, not really engaging with the films as they were, but just really being really nasty.
Oh yeah, you know what? Lovecraft Country. I, definitely, as the series went on, I did multiple reviews that were kind of packaged in. I took a chunk of episodes, reviewed them, then did another chunk of episodes, and then did another chunk of episodes.
Lovecraft Country – as I was very clear – for all of its highs, it also had some low lows as well. The series definitely had some issues with LGBT+ rep for sure, as far as a mixture sometimes of imbuing those characters with whole agency and autonomy, but also with “bury your gays” for sure. There was an episode that had the introduction of a native trans, or two-spirit, character and there was a lot of violence that was done towards this character.
So there have been, I guess, a few where I’ve had to be honest and take the films or TV series to task. And that’s important, because for a really good critic, you can’t just voice praise and that’s the end of the review. You have to really get in, wade into the weeds, if you will, to really give yourself the integrity and give the readers obviously that dual integrity as well, that you are looking at the series as a complete product – where it succeeds and where it may have missed the bar in some aspects. Because obviously as critics, our voices and input help the genre advance. Without our good, salient criticism, we would not have the content that we love and are fawning over now; the genre never would have moved. It never would have grown.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about critics?
There’s a belief that all critics are white and male and cis-hetero. That’s not the case at all. It’s still an issue about who gets the opportunity to have the microphone and have the pen as far as reviewing is concerned. That’s definitely still one of the biggest hurdles.
But the flip side is, because people are so hungry for something else, people are more open and willing to give space and attention actually to anyone that doesn’t check those specific boxes, if you will. I’m in the horror circles as far as social media is concerned. And then, I’m also in the queer circles as well. So I would probably get a lot more women, queer folk, non-white people that are in my feed, you know what I mean? They really come with something unique, something profound.
It’s a lot of the millennials now who are bringing all of their knowledge and life experience to a lot of these criticisms, and we have a different capacity now to kind of reflect on the content that we watch, that we allow the space for, where before we just dive into a piece of media with no content warnings, no trigger warnings, no thought to who this may harm or who this may impact with its content or with its messaging.
And now, not in a cloying way or not in a way that people can’t handle – we know that people are mature, we’re adults, we can handle a lot – but we always just like to clear the air, if you will. We just let people know up front that this is the content that X, Y, Z thing has. I would definitely say that critics now are just very aware, to at least give people the option before they’re thrust into the deep end.
It’s like, prepare yourself and decide whether or not you want to jump. Right?
(Photo by Netflix)
What’s next on your watch list? What release are you excited to see the rest of this year?
I am a very, very, very, very, very, very, very excited for the new Hellraiser that’s coming on Hulu. I think everybody and their mother is excited for that one.
You’re featured in a documentary called Mental Health and Horror. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
We talked about what mental health and mental illness means for us individually. Then also, what is the broader discussion within the films that we watch? Where is the room for improvement in the films that we watch regarding mental health or the discussion of mental illness? Some of the films we talked about were kind of our foundation in the horror genre, or – I’m trying not to provide too many spoilers here – films that were integral to our development or films that were maybe triggering for us as well.
How do the horror genre and mental health intersect? Are there patterns in representation?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler… Many of us that are just film watchers, or even film historians, know that so much of what we experienced in the United States was a byproduct of the Hays Code and the Lavender Scare as far as queer content and all of that being interconnected with a very conservative presentation in the films that we got in 1940s or 1950s America, and the genre was still trying to shake off a lot of that stuff, even in the ’70s and the ’80s.
(Photo by 20th Century Fox)
What were you watching the first time you saw yourself on screen, if you’ve seen yourself on screen? And what did you relate to about that character or story?
What’s interesting about this question is it seems like it’s bits and pieces, if you will. I don’t think that, I guess unless you’re choosy, you can say, “Well, that was me and that was my character,” and so on and so forth. Until we get more non-binary characters in media, then maybe I’ll say, “Ah, there we are. There’s our benchmark.” Right?
Yeah, I feel that.
We still don’t have a lot of ace-spectrum representation. We’re still dealing with more characters that are neuro divergent of some kind and different, whether it be disabled or different body types. So I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll have the muscular, non-binary, neuro divergent nerd of my dreams.
I would say – I even wrote a piece on it, actually; I called them my horror moms – that Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were two of the first characters that just something about their stories and their journeys really hit something for me.
And it could have been as well they were two of the first visibly queer or queer-coded characters I ever saw in films that really ticked a lot of those boxes – characters that had been through an incalculable traumatic experience, the trauma of not being believed, the trauma of being the only one, the trauma of being the only woman, or the only queer person in the room.
I think that’s why they’re so near and dear to my heart because they were some of the first, and not only just some of the first, but some of the best. It’s rare that women, period, get any kind of horror film to start, but then you’re talking about sequels and then also having their stories revisited. Alien Resurrection and Terminator: Dark Fate are very special for me. I would even say Halloween Ends and everything. Just seeing that, there’s just something very powerful about that because a lot of films, we get a one-and-done that that’s their story. The end. We don’t really get to revisit them and see how are they dealing, how are they coping, how are they not.
And these characters in particular, we get to see that they’re not perfect and they’re flawed. I love a good imperfect character, or that we get to see the nuances of them and see that they’re not okay, that they are traumatized, that they are ostracized for a myriad of reasons.
There have obviously been other characters that resonate for me because they were the first Black one, right? If I had to make a top 10 sort of list, they would definitely be in the top two or neck-and-neck or whatever. They’re my horror moms for a reason.
(Photo by © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Is there a movie or series that you love that’s Rotten on the Tomatometer?
I was surprised to see Death Becomes Her on there. I was like, I was like, “No, not this iconic horror film – horror comedy! – no way.” That blew me away.
The Craft! The fact that The Craft was on there…
I was like, “What are these lies?” Blade is on there. That bowled me over. I’m like, “Wait a minute. Not iconic, literal Black vampire that kicked off the Marvel explosion on the Rotten list!” I Know What You Did Last Summer is on there, okay?
What else was on there? The Cell. Now that one really surprised me, because The Cell has such incredible visuals, and in my opinion, the story is actually pretty tight, pretty solid as far as the writing – but the visuals alone in The Cell should have it in the Fresh category, in my opinion.
Honestly, I think their Rotten-ness kind of adds to their history. Jennifer’s Body! Jennifer’s Body is a classic and critics hated it when it came out – they didn’t understand it.
Yes. That’s another, thank you.
The fact that now that film is lauded, that it’s had all this critical analysis, that people are just like, “Oh, this is one of best films ever made.” Oh-wee.
Dani Bethea is a pop culture writer with a focus on horror. Their work can be found on Medium, Ghouls Ghouls Ghouls, and Daily Dead, among others. They are the former Editor-in-Chief of the We Are Horror zine and are featured in an upcoming documentary titled Mental Health and Horror. Find Dani on Twitter: @TheDaniBethea.