Okay it is not terribly original for a movie blogger to do horror movie reviews in October, but I’m doing it anyway. My Netflix queue, DVD rack, and download folder (for the out of print rarities) are clogged with horror films I’ve been told I must see, and favorites I haven’t watched in a good while. I’ll try to have a horror movie every day, but with the new car I may have less time for bloggery.
Horror movies are their own beast. It’s hard to be truly scared by a movie as an adult. Sometimes if you’re home alone with all the lights out at night, you can get so absorbed in a horror film that the scares still work, but it’s been difficult for me. And the theater experience is even harder nowadays with jackasses talking, texting, and getting calls during movies. Before I begin this horror movie marathon, let me name my favorite horror movies and why I enjoy them so much. Most branded my childhood brain and therefore sit on the pedestal of nostalgia. It is very difficult for new movies to compete with such memories, but some have managed.
1. Poltergeist is my all-time favorite scary movie. A normal family composed of little-known actors in your standard Haunted House movie, but with so many bizarre occurrences that you are drawn in to their terror. This is also what Richard Pryor used to call a “dumb white people” movie, because “black people would move the fuck out of the house!” And I suppose that’s true. If my walls bled and disembodied voices growled “GET OUT” I’d probably high-tail it out the window in my underwear. But we can suspend disbelief for a little while, and imagine being sucked into the static of the television, or having chairs rearrange themselves behind our backs, or that creepy tree out our window suddenly decide we look pretty tasty. Some of the effects are dated- the fake faces that get torn apart, mostly- but the rest are still terrifying. When Paula Prentiss turns around and her kitchen chairs are neatly stacked on the table, it’s one of the most subtle, creepiest scenes put to film. It merges creepy classics like The Uninvited and The Haunting (1963) with Tobe Hooper’s gory sensibilities for the perfect mix of the unknown and the unfathomable.
2. The Thing (Carpenter version). Probably the pinnacle of stop-motion and traditional effects, and taking place on the loneliest spot on Earth- McMurdo Station in Antarctica. A dozen men braving the coldest of winters, we are immediately thrust into an unlikely science fiction story where anyone can be not what they seem. The sense of paranoia and isolation is driven home by the amazing score, and the “things” are still some of the most bizarre creations on film. Kurt Russell went from being a Disney movie kid to an utter bad-ass with Carpenter, and as the unseen enemy winnows down the cast we have no idea what will happen next. We’re on the edge of our seats. It’s Hitchcock-level suspense in a horror context.
3. Alien. Sure, you could say it is science fiction, but it is just a monster movie moved to space, where no one can hear you scream. Still one of the best and most memorable taglines ever written. Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon put together a great cast and made them cozy and believable, and then subject them to visceral, instinctively repulsive situations with H.R. Giger’s primal monster designs. He took simple, primal forms like the spidery, handlike “face hugger,” which not only grabs your face but essentially fucks it and pumps a larva load into your chest cavity. When it bursts out of your chest, it now resembles a snake- another creature, like spiders, that people tend to fear and hate on a primal level. And the final design goes beyond Freud to resemble a sleek black creature both phallic and technological- while later movies make it clear that it is a natural beast, Giger’s own style has always been “bio mechanics,” making uneasy mergings of flesh, steel and silicon, not unlike Cronenberg’s horrific visions in Videodrome. The story is a simple slasher tale as the fodder is devoured and the virginal female remains, but damn if it doesn’t scare you on a visceral level.
4. Videodrome. I saw this last year and regret not getting into David Cronenberg earlier. Much like Alien, it plays on our fears of the great progresses in technology. Here a late-night TV channel is affecting us, and we are not sure what is reality and nightmare anymore. The stunning visuals are still creepy today, and while the “breathing videotape” is quite dated, James Woods and his poor “hand gun” are still cringe-inducingly horrific. It helps to remember when not every station was owned by a cable conglomerate, and you could see some strange shit just flipping the channels. The mood of the film is incredibly bleak and gripping, and the ending is unexpected, shocking, and a true classic. This may not have big scares, but creepiness and sense of dread throughout are impeccable, and must be experienced.
5. The Shining. This is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, and Stephen King fans be damned, it is still one of the best horror movies ever made even if it strays far from the storyline. It takes several viewings to understand just how fucked up Jack and family are before they arrive at the Overlook Hotel, and what happens there is now among the greatest haunted house tales ever put to film. This film is an old friend to me now, and I watch it every year when the snow comes down. Like The Thing, it makes use of the isolation winter brings, and the cast is full of archetypal characters. Jack with the rage bubbling beneath the surface, fearful Shelley Duvall who is obviously an abused wife, though we never see it, and little Danny, the child of an enraged, unloving father who flees to an inner world and deals with powers he cannot comprehend. I’m not sure if Scatman Crothers is the first Magical Negro on film, but he’s definitely the best. The film also has a lot of dark humor, that it takes several viewings to realize in its richness. Check out Scatman’s art collection, for example. All these years later, I’m still on the edge of my seat when they try to escape the hotel and its hedge maze. It’s a tale by a master storyteller twisted to a master director’s ends, and while it may not be King’s vision, it is still an unforgettable one.
6. Jacob’s Ladder. Without this movie there’d be no “Silent Hill.” Tim Robbins is a Vietnam Vet dealing with what he thinks are flashbacks or effects of a chemical they used on the battlefield, and the entire film is one gigantic mindfuck beginning from there. He soon can’t tell what is real and what is not, as his visions get increasingly terrifying and bizarre, reminiscent of The Thing and Cronenberg’s body modification fetishes. Once again the director draws us into an unfamiliar world more disquieting than scary, and Robbins’ paranoia is quickly infectious. Playing on our familiar nightmares where we remember things that may not be real, this movie stays with you long after it ends.
7. The Descent. This is one of my favorite recent horror flicks and while it has its flaws- namely the interchangeable characters- it also works on a dream-level and pulls a great switcheroo in the middle. A group of athletic gals meet to go spelunking as they do once a year; this time in remote Appalachia. Playing on familiar fears of claustrophobia and darkness, of course they run into trouble and need to find a new way out of the cave; also, no one knows where they are, because it is a new-found system and one gal “wanted to be the first.” So we also get that lurking sense of dread that comes with being lost in the woods, another archetypal fear from fairy tales and childhood. By the time we find out they are not alone in the caves, we are already engrossed in a great survival horror tale, and this take on the Sawney Bean tale amps things up to 11. It is also unclear if this is reality or a dream, and the bleak ending is one of my favorites.
So that’s 7 for now. Why not 10? Well, I have a month to watch 30 horror films and see if I can find 3 more I consider great. There are plenty of modern, good horror movies, but the great ones have been elusive. Calvaire and High Tension out of France have come close, but have more style than substance. They are definitely worth seeing. I’m told that Them (remade in America as The Strangers) is worthy of the title, and both versions are on tap. [Rec] is supposed to be zombies meets The Blair Witch Project, and has many fans. That will be considered. Hell, I may revisit Blair Witch, since I missed it in theaters and only saw it on a small screen. A lot of people love it, and the “lost in the woods” vibe, with weird happenings that may or may not be supernatural is a great premise.
This month I will also be watching a few Paul Newman films I’ve missed, and if I see anything in the theater or with Firecracker (who doesn’t like horror much) I’ll try to squeeze them in here. It will tax my blogging skills to the max. So watch this space for the inevitable meltdown!