10 Well-Written Horror Films Part III: Season of the Witch
header image courtesy Slant Magazine
We've come together again in this the tenth month of the year, with All Hallows' Eve just around the corner. We shall thus gather 'round the glowing box of moving pictures and partake of ghastly cinematic delights whilst gorging our stomachs with pumpkins of mellowcreme and other sweets guaranteed to later conjure such bellyaches of pure torment. We have been here before. We will always be here.
Join me if you will down a dark path, in which we shall discuss horror films of the highest order, featuring scripts mined from the richest creative areas of the mind—all of them original works for the screen, not adapted from the pages of hallowed scribes of the macabre, nor remade, re-imagined, repurposed (re: regurgitated) from past celluloid terrors.
Let the nightmare begin...
Written/Directed by David Robert Mitchell
I doubt you'll find many who will disagree that this was one of the best horror films of last year, with some truly creepy imagery and inventive writing. This isn't your typical spooky narrative, where scantily clad teens are terrorized by a supernatural being and sexual activity guarantees death. The characters are all well-thought out and realistically-drawn, and while you may initially think this is a cautionary tale about promiscuity, you quickly understand that sex is far from the subtextual baddie we've come to expect. Engaging and terrifying, It Follows demands numerous screenings to thoroughly absorb its subtle genius.
Jay: It's funny...I used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates. Driving around with my friends in their cars. I had this image of myself, holding hands with a really cute guy, listening to the radio, driving along some pretty road. Up north maybe. And the trees start to change colors. It's never about going anywhere really. Just having some sort of freedom, I guess. Never old enough, the hell do we go?
Written/Directed by Jennifer Kent
Another stellar picture from last year. I wrote at length about The Babadook's nuanced subtext in a column for this site, so I won't repeat myself on that subject here. I will say, however, that Kent's debut film contains a fantastic, expertly-crafted dysfunctional mother-son relationship, which is the root of the slow-burn terror epitomized by the titular bad guy. Much like the unnamed Thing from It Follows, Mister Babadook is a breath of fresh air where monsters are concerned, proving that we don't need remakes of the same old franchises to offer cinema-goers a good scare.
Amelia (reading from Mister Babadook): If it's in a word or it's in a look, You can't get rid of the Babadook...If you're a really clever one, And you know what it is to see, Then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me. His name is Mister Babadook, and this is his book...A rumbling sound then 3 sharp knocks, ba Ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! That's when you'll know that he's around. You'll see him if you look.
Written by Joss Whedon & Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard
I can't believe I've written two "well-written" horror columns prior to this one and I haven't yet included The Cabin in the Woods. With its clever premise—horror movie tropes originate from a secret global organization who once a year makes sacrifices to "ancient evil gods"—hilarious dialogue and spoofs of classic spook and gore fests, this film never ceases to entertain. There really hasn't been a meta-horror this good since Scream, and it may well be awhile before we see one better than The Cabin in the Woods.
Sitterson: The Japan Group should've had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?
Written/Directed by Wes Craven
Speaking of meta-horror, the seventh installment in the Nightmare series predates the late Wes Craven's more recognizable and celebrated entry into this sub-genre, the aforementioned Scream, by two years. Yet while the latter film still enjoys a level of popularity and critical acclaim even to this day, many have forgotten about New Nightmare, which is a shame, because it is one of the best Freddy Krueger films, on par with the original and Part 3: The Dream Warriors. If you haven't revisited New Nightmare lately, do so; its abundance of quality just may surprise you.
RIP Wes Craven.
Robert: I think they'd like to see us together again.
Heather: In what, a romantic comedy?
Robert: Just because it's a love story doesn't mean it can't have a decapitation or two.
Written/Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
This debut feature from writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour contains a love story as innocent as the one featured in Moonrise Kingdom, but with supernatural/horrific elements built up around and inflecting the primary narrative. Amirpour doesn't attempt to reinvent the vampire here, sticking to or otherwise not mentioning some of the classic tropes of the sub-genre. And yet, the filmmaker delivers a vampire that is sympathetic without being sparkly and/or guilt-ridden about her "condition," while also managing to be terrifying without resorting to ham-fisted barbarism. She is neither overtly sexualized, nor is she egregiously repugnant—she's just a girl who likes to dance and ride her skateboard, a person who wants love just like anyone. The fact that she's a "creature of the night" is ultimately beside the point.
The Girl: I'll ask you one more time. Tell the truth. Are you a good boy...? I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat...'Til the end of your life, I'll be watching you. Understand...? Be a good boy.
Written/Directed by David Cronenberg
It's about time David Cronenberg made another appearance in this yearly column. I wrote about his Videodrome, an infinitely wonderful movie, back in the first installment, and The Brood definitely matches that film's intensity and complexity frame by frame, moment by moment. Dealing with the heady and bizarre phenomenon termed "psychoplasmics" by Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) as it relates to his patients' psychological baggage, this narrative—true to anything Cronenbergian—tosses its audience into a mote of surreal intrigue and lets us sink further and further downward, until we're left more perplexed than when we started. That being said, the less you know about The Brood going into it, the better...
Juliana: Thirty seconds after you're born you have a past, and sixty seconds after that you begin to lie to yourself about it.
Written/Directed by Jee-woon Kim
One of the darkest films on this list, A Tale of Two Sisters not only tells the story the title implies, it weaves a complex narrative of familial dysfunction, lies, and insidiousness. There is ostensibly nothing unique about the premise—two girls live with a wicked stepmother and a complacent father, and they soon realize the ghost haunting their secluded lake home is somehow connected to their own presence in the house. But it is the wonderful execution of this narrative and its ability to surprise and shock that places A Tale of Two Sisters a cut above films with similar stories. Definitely check this one out.
Eun-ju: Do you know what's really scary? You want to forget something, totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can't go away, you see. And...and it follows you around like a ghost.
Written by Dan O'Bannon
Directed by Ridley Scott
What more can I write about this film that hasn't been said before? We all know just how bad-ass this movie is, with its haunted house narrative transplanted onto an isolated spaceship, groundbreaking (and still to this day, impressive) special effects, suspenseful scenes and genuine jump scares, and one of the most iconic characters in sci-fi/horror history (Ripley, 'natch), there are more than enough reasons why Alien is considered a classic. Like The Cabin in the Woods (which also features Sigourney Weaver, by the way), it's about time this film made it into this yearly column.
Ripley: That's the only way. We'll move in pairs. We'll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered. And then we'll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?
Written by Anthony Grevill-Bell, from a concept by Stanley Mann & John Kohn
Directed by Douglas Hickox
This is hands-down my favorite Vincent Price performance. Here he plays Edward Lionheart, a classically-trained actor who, after being spurned by a group of theatre critics and denied a Best Actor award, sets about enacting his revenge in the bloodiest, cruelest fashion he knows: by taking ghastly scenarios from the works of William Shakespeare and forcing his enemies to suffer (literally) through them. What results is a screenplay that seamlessly blends performances of the Bard's nastiest scenes—from The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Richard III and Titus Andronicus, just to name a few—with elements of black humor and slapstick, creating a film simultaneously hilarious and stomach-churning. An underrated classic, to be sure.
Edward: I always admired you as a critic, Snipe. Your clever use of analogy and metaphor, plus you always strived to be complimentary. But not always complimentary.
Snipe: Critics make mistakes, Lionheart. We're only human.
Edward: An opinion I find myself incapable of sharing.
Written/Directed by George A. Romero
Also known as Hungry Wives (an inferior title, if I do say so myself), this little-known gem from George A. Romero tackles the loneliness and loss of identity experienced by suburban women, who become interested in witchcraft as a means of filling the voids in their unsatisfied lives. The horror in this tale comes not from their dabbling, but rather from the unsettling truth that despite partaking in such extreme rituals, they cannot escape the shadows of the husbands that supposedly define them. Romero is especially astute in his social commentary here, and the underlying message of Season of the Witch still carries a significant amount of gravity today.
Shirley: (reading from the 'Witchcraft's Primer') "The religion offers, further, a retreat for emotional women, repressed women, masculine women, and those suffering from personal disappointment or nervous maladjustment." Christ, what other kind of women are there? No wonder this stuff's getting so damn popular.
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