Well-Written Horror Films: Part IV
It's the most wonderful time of the year, when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to roam freely among us. Perhaps you keep these spirits at bay with propitiation, or perhaps you honor those you've lost in the last year. Or perhaps you spend this time of year engaged in the Americanized traditions of costumes, candy, and horror movies. Or all three.
However you do Halloween, if you're looking for horror fare that excels both in scares and gore as well as story, here are twelve titles to check out on or before the 31st.*
It should be noted that I have stuck to one simple rule with this list: every entry is an original screenplay, neither remake nor adaptation. So you will not see films like The Thing, Psycho, or Hellraiser here, even though they are some of the best horror films out there.
Now...let us begin.
(*Or, if you're like me, any time of the year, because we don't need an excuse to watch horror.)
I extolled the virtues of this film in a separate column around the time of its release, and after a recent rewatch, my opinions have not changed. The writer/director Robert Eggers mentioned Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as a major influence, and it shows: both films feature stories so intrinsically intertwined with dread, they cannot be separated, with isolation and an examination of the American family at the crux of each narrative. But Eggers adds in a clash between spirituality and biology, between pious humility and raw desire, creating a truly unnerving exercise in psychological unease, as well as a unique piece of cinema, the likes of which we won't see repeated for some time.
Possession is a sublime piece of what-the-fuckery from start to finish. I definitely cannot sum up its brilliance in the short amount of space I have here, nor can I adequately explain what the film is about. Moreover, Andrej Zulawski's film is the type that is all the better enjoyed if you go into it mostly unaware of what you're about to witness. I don't even recommend watching the trailer. The most succinct, and therefore automatically inadequate, thing I can say about Possession is this: if "perfectly" sane people want to experience madness, this is the film they should watch, because just when you think you know what's around the next corner, Zulawksi subverts your expectations to his maximum ability, in a way that both makes sense to the narrative, and is also completely nonsensical in terms of the laws of reality as we know them.
In many ways, Trick 'r' Treat is the perfect Halloween film. I'm a sucker for anthology movies, and writer/director Michael Dougherty pretty much masters the format here, expertly interweaving his five disparate tales via a framing narrative involving a wicked little trick-or-treater in an effectively terrifying costume. Plus, while technically this film is a comedy, it generates laughs from the blackest of humor, of the type only the truest sorts of macabre people will appreciate. And because Dougherty plays with a variety of horror movie tropes in an original fashion, any movie marathon on Halloween can be capped off with this film.
It's gross, it's dumb, it's lurid, and it's goofy as all hell. But writers Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, and Russell Streiner, alongside director Dan O'Bannon, know exactly what they're doing with this film. This is slapstick of the highest order, made all the more hilarious with its gut-churning special effects and brilliantly silly dialogue. The cast are allowed to chew up the scenery—with James Karen in particular going back for thirds—and with the fountains of blood and gore splattering every celluloid inch, the whole film turns into a delicious goulash of absurdism. Only a handful of films have recaptured this combination of Jerry Lewis-level flailing and extreme violence—Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator among them—but Return of the Living Dead is the first (at least to my knowledge) and, in my opinion, the best.
This psychological thriller from director Mike Flanagan, from a script by Flanagan and the film's star Kate Siegel, covers familiar territory—a woman alone in a remote house is stalked and terrorized by a masked killer—but it does so in a number of creative and original ways that stand out from its predecessors. Namely, the film's protagonist, Maddie (Siegel) is deaf, giving the theme of self-isolation an added punch of uncontrollable "disability"—though, without giving too much away, Maddie's deafness becomes an asset against her tormentor, completely subverting the idea that a lack of hearing (or sight, or whatever sense most of us take for granted) is a disability to begin with. Furthermore, Siegel and Flanagan prove themselves experts at leaving breadcrumbs for the audience to follow. No detail is left unused in Hush, making it a taut and thoroughly enjoyable, albeit tense, narrative experience.
If David Lynch and David Cronenberg had a baby, it would grow up and make a film like The Rambler. Last I checked, writer/director Calvin Reeder was not the unholy offspring of these two men, but he might as well be. This film features all of that Lynchian quirkiness we've grown to love—especially on display in Twin Peaks—alongside the squeamish, nightmarish imagery featured in just about every Cronenberg outing, but particularly so in The Fly and Naked Lunch. As such, Reeder's narrative is a labyrinthine one, with a protagonist who is simultaneously an everyman and a no-man, like many dudes we've seen before, unlike any dude we've seen before, who finds himself in stranger and stranger circumstances as the story progresses. And we, the audience, are along for the ride, high on the endorphins of having our minds perversely and spectacularly fucked.
Another brain-melter for you fans of weird and surreal horror. Admittedly, this film is a bit marred by its rushed ending, but not enough to take away from the total narrative experience, which is both lulling and disquieting at the same time. Writer/director Panos Cosmatos handles the less-is-more storytelling approach with considerable skill, leaving questions satisfactorily unanswered, if that makes sense. Put another way, the film is more enjoyable the less we know. Put another way still, watching Beyond the Black Rainbow is a bit like having a strange, oversaturated dream that frequently and liberally dips into nightmare country. You might be able to figure out the deeper meanings behind the weirdness and terror when you're awake, you might not; the point is, it's better to experience the weirdness and have the opportunity to decipher it into something tangible, rather than having the tangible willingly handed over to you.
Speaking of Lynchian quirkiness, and weirdness, and narratives that play like a twisted dream. David Lynch straddles the line between horror and psychological noir with every picture he makes, but his first feature film is decidedly more horror than anything else (compare this to his early short films, many of which are most definitely horror). When I first saw Eraserhead low those many years ago, I had no idea what the fuck was going on, and I loved every minute of it. You can use this film as a kind of litmus test, to determine if the filmmaker is using weirdness for some purpose, even if you don't exactly know what that purpose is, and a filmmaker who's just being weird for the sake of being weird. There's definitely something going on in Eraserhead, though I still can't quite tell you what it is, not completely. Every time I watch it, a few of my questions get answered, but a new crop of questions pop up too. For me, that's great storytelling.
Anyone looking for a lesson in great tension-building should really study The Descent. Upon its initial release, the trailers and advertisements made effective use of the "crawlers," or the subterranean creatures encountered by a group of thrill-seeking friends on a cavern expedition. But writer/director Neil Marshall subverts the expectation of a human vs. monster narrative and spends considerable time establishing the trauma of our protagonist, as well as ratcheting up interpersonal tension among the friends and establishing a keen sense of claustrophobia and dread down in the caves, so that by the time we finally see the monsters, emotions are already at a fever-pitch. What follows is equal parts Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon (that Marshall worked on the series Hannibal and its retelling of the Red Dragon narrative is infinitely appropriate).
In conversations about interesting and original vampire films, Guillermo del Toro's feature-length debut rarely comes up, which is a real shame, as Cronos deals with the familiar vampire tropes in a truly unique fashion. As a result, the film is a blend of fantastical science and terror; but it's also a meditation on growing old, the temptation of eternal youth and health, and the ramifications of such—all without being too heavy-handed or preachy, like other entries in the vampire tradition. Given that the special effects are pretty bare-bones here, this early effort from del Toro exemplifies the filmmaker's dedication to story over simple scares. Whether you feel he's been consistent in recent years, there's no denying that this dedication is front and center with Cronos.
Man Bites Dog is both a satire of the brutal murderer film, presented within the "mockumentary" format, as well as a brutal murderer film itself. One minute, you're laughing your ass off, and the next, you're feeling sick to your stomach. It's essentially This is Spinal Tap meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Furthermore, The Blair Witch Project owes far, far more to this film than it does to Cannibal Holocaust, the latter of which is often cited as the first "found-footage" horror film, and thus the immediate inspiration for Blair Witch. However, it can also be said that Man Bites Dog owes a lot to Cannibal Holocaust, in terms of its unflinching depiction of sadism and violent acts. Its creators—Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde (who also stars) and Vincent Tavier—pull no punches, so just bear that in mind before entering into this smart, engrossing, but altogether disturbing narrative.
Dare I? I do dare. I'm sure many of you will scoff at the inclusion of H20 on this list, and I can certainly understand such scoffing. This is by no means a perfect film, mostly for its very '90s, Scream-influenced dialogue (Kevin Williamson, writer of said meta-horror juggernaut, worked extensively on this film, though he is uncredited). And yes, there are serious continuity problems, especially where the Shape's mask is concerned—apparently the filmmakers couldn't decide what look to land on, so something like six different masks were used throughout the production, with some CGI mask-manipulation added in post-production to boot. But despite all this, H20 is one of the few Michael Myers-focused Halloween films that actually grasps the essence of the original film—and that includes Halloween II, which featured considerable creative input from John Carpenter. Because while this film acknowledges the whole "Laurie is Michael's sister" plot reveal established in HII (an element I'm actually not fond of), one gets the sense the Shape reappears all these years later not so much to "finish what he started," so to speak, but rather because, like in the first film, no one is afraid of him anymore. And despite the staple "first scene kill" popularized by Williamson and Scream, H20 switches its focus to building suspense and fleshing out Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), presenting us with a very broken and problematic protagonist who is understandably scarred by her terrifying experiences two decades ago—broken and intensely guarded, much to the frustration of her son (Josh Hartnett) and her lover (Adam Arkin). This basically makes her the Loomis of the film as well, afraid of something no one else is afraid of anymore. That is, until HE shows back up. (For more thoughts on the dynamics of the original Halloween and the function of Loomis, see my What Works & What Doesn't column, published earlier this month).
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