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'Horror Movie' questions the motivation behind evil acts

William Morrow

Paul Tremblay's Horror Movie is a peculiar horror novel that takes a refreshing look at the haunted film subgenre, while also eliminating the line between novels and movie scripts.

Dark, surprisingly violent, and incredibly multilayered, this narrative is a superb addition to Tremblay's already impressive oeuvre that shows he can deliver the elements fans love from him — while also constantly pushing the envelope and exploring new ways to tell stories.

In June of 1993, a small group of young people got together and spent a month making a bizarre horror movie titled Horror Movie. With one camera, a skeleton crew, a script that broke a lot of rules, and almost no budget, they managed to make their film after a few setbacks and plenty of blood and accidents. While the film was never released, three scenes and a few stills were made available online, and they became the stuff of legend over the years, collecting a cult following and sparking a frenzy of speculation, online debate, and conspiracy theories.

Now, 30 years after the original, unreleased film was made and after all the drama —psychological and emotional as well as legal — that ensued, Hollywood wants to make a big budget version and release it. The man who played "The Thin Kid," perhaps the original film's most iconic and mysterious character, is the only surviving cast member, and they want him to reprise his role. He still has the mask he used in the movie, and also the scars the filming process left behind. He remembers the strange things that happened on the set, the brutality that quickly became normalized while they shot dark scenes, and the chaos and destruction the film brought to all of them. Still, he agrees to help with the reboot. As things move forward and he deals with directors and movie people, the past comes back to haunt him — but "The Thin Kid" pushes forward, as always.

Reading a Tremblay novel is entering a universe in which confusion and ambiguity —"My answer was not no. I didn't say the word 'yes'" — reign supreme. Horror Movie is no different. In fact, this might be Tremblay's most Tremblay novel to date. For starters, the author once again eschews the traditional novel format, this time in favor of a mix of novel and screenplay in which one bleeds into the other frequently, switching chapters and effortlessly taking readers from past to present and back again. Also, the screenplay itself is unique in format and makes the reader part of what's happening, constantly shattering the fourth wall an acknowledging that the events are communal, that we are there, witnessing what the characters are witnessing and feeling the same sense of dread and anticipation that they feel.

While the structure of this novel is unique, the narrative itself is very easy to follow — until it's not. The story is there, but with many purposeful holes. We know bad things happened while the movie was being filmed — accidents, injuries, extreme violence that occurred with consent — and that the whole thing ended up in court, but we don't know how or why. And the author holds those secrets until the very end, which, as with any other Tremblay novel, holds a few surprise twists.

Most importantly, this is a narrative that questions the motivation behind evil acts. During the filming, The Thin Kid is horribly tortured: The kids who keep him hostage throw things at him, put out cigarettes on his body, and cut off part of his pinky finger. Some of that happens for real, partly to make it look convincing on screen and partly for reasons that aren't too clear. There are several unsettling moments in this novel, and at the core of each of them are people acting horribly just because they can. Tremblay's work has often interrogated the nature of horror and bad behavior, but never as clearly and he does here.

While Horror Movie is the kind of creepy narrative that can be enjoyed without much thinking, it's also a multilayered novel that almost demands intellectual engagement. Besides the way the author studies awful behavior, the story also explores the unreliable nature of memory. The Thin Kid, now the adult who narrates the novel, is self-deprecating and unreliable. He remembers things a certain way, but knows that his memories might not be accurate: "We laughed. I think we laughed, or I choose to remember we laughed. I think we're in more control of what we remember or what we don't remember than we assume." This purposeful lack of certainty is designed to keep readers wondering, and it succeeds at that.

Horror Movie is strange and unsettling in the best way possible. This is a novel that's also a screenplay, but the story all blends together perfectly. Tremblay's unique voice and chameleonic style have made him one of the leading voices in speculative fiction, and this is one of his best novels so far.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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