Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween: 13 Scary Movies You Might Have Missed

A box of assorted treats, with something for everyone. There's quiet suspense and over-the-top splatter, old-fashioned ghosts, cowboy vampires, tiny demons, werewolves, giant slimy monsters, malevolent aliens, a sinister manservant, and zombies. Lots of zombies. Seven countries are represented, with a timeline stretching from the '40s to the present. (And, yes, there's actually 15 films represented, but I'm a rebel, you can't tame me. Conformity is evil. Fight the power.)

Put out the lights.

#14 - Dead of Winter (US 1987)

A gothic suspense gem directed by the late Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man), featuring Mary Steenburgen as an actress who auditions for a role that's not at all what it seems. Roddy McDowell is delightfully sinister, and the snowbound old house is appropriately atmospheric. Enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, plus some genuine scares.

#13 - Near Dark (US 1987)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Point Break), this cult classic is Romeo and Juliet meets the Wild Bunch, but with vampires. Mae (Jenny Wright) bites innocent cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and drags him off to meet her makeshift badass bloodsucking "family" (Lance Henriksen, Jennette Goldstein, Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton and Joshua John Miller). Great direction, compelling characters, poetic violence, it combines the sensibilities of a western with the subversiveness of a horror movie.

#12 - Black Sheep (New Zealand 2007)
         Undead (Australia 2003)

A double-feature from Down Under, two giddily gory romps in the vein of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Black Sheep is falling-down funny in spots, as zombie sheep overrun a town in New Zealand, while human zombies invade a small town in Australia in Undead. Both films are tremendous fun and suitably blood-spattery.

#11 - Session 9 (US 2001)

Directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Fringe, Treme, The Wire), Session 9 takes place in the notorious Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, as an asbestos removal crew goes slowly crazy after finding tapes detailing the sessions of a former patient. Understated and oppressively claustrophobic, this is one of those films that gets under your skin and leaves you sleeping with the lights on.

#10 - Dead of Night (UK 1946)

Dead of Night is maybe most notable as the original British portmanteau film, combining a number of stand-alone stories tied together by a central device, spawning such classics as Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden, and Dr. Terror's House of Horror.

Let me just advise that if you ever find yourself with a group of strangers, oh, say, on a train, or at a party you don't remember arriving at, and they start telling you about the disturbing dreams they've had, just leave. IT WON'T END WELL.

Here, guests at an architect's country home relate stories of the macabre to a mysterious stranger. Most people remember the chilling final story featureing Michael Redgrave as a man in thrall of a truly creepy ventriloquist's dummy, but my favorite is the tale of the children's Christmas party, which still gives me the shivers.

#9 - Dead Snow (Norway 2009)

When I was a kid, my brother and I were enamored of a 1977 film called Shock Waves, starring Peter Cushing, John Carradine, and Brooke Adams. You see, it had zombies. Nazi zombies. Underwater Nazi Zombies. I mean, that's like having a pie made of cake.

Dead Snow is like Shock Waves but with, well, snow. Seven Norwegian medical students are off to spend their break at a remote cabin. Of course, there's your problem right there. If there's one thing I've learned, never go to a remote cabin, EVER. It's just not worth it.

Never mind the plot. It doesn't really matter. Although you do have the creepy old guy passing by and stopping just long enough for helpful exposition before being summarily dispatched, so we're not completely lost. What you have is Nazi zombies, lots of them. LOTS. They never seem to stop coming.

The zombie snow fight set pieces are fantastic. It's pulse-poundingly fun. And let me just say that I now feel that I can handle any medical emergency with a sewing kit and some duct tape. And a snowmobile.

#8 - Dog Soldiers (UK 2002)

Fun and gory, Dog Soldiers pits a group of British commandos trapped in a lonely Scottish farmhouse against a clan of werewolves. Apparently lonely farmhouses are only slightly less dangerous than remote cabins.  Full of in jokes and sly homages (one character is named Harry G. Wells and another Bruce Campbell), it's a non-stop thrill-ride which manages to be both funny and edge-of-your-seat-don't-look suspenseful.

#7-Five Million Years to Earth (UK 1967) aka Quatermass and the Pit

This is one of those films that scared the hell out of me as a kid, and also introduced me to Professor Bernard Quatermass. Here Quatermass is called on when a mysterious object is found buried under Hobb's End during an expansion of the London Underground system. Literate and complex, it starts slowly, but builds up brick by brick to a truly disturbing conclusion.

#6 - The Legend of Hell House (UK 1973)

Despite its lurid movie poster (and what movie poster from the '70s wasn't lurid? In fact, lurid is a perfect descriptor for most of the '70s) The Legend of Hell House is a dark, moody, deeply frightening ghost story. No gore, just unremitting dread.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson from his book of the same name, the film centers around a researcher (Clive Revill) out to dispel the the rumors surrounding the Belasco House, the "Everest of haunted houses," by using a machine to disperse the electromagnetic energy he believes is responsible for the phenomena.  He's accompanied by his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) and a pair of mediums (Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin).

The electronic score and odd camera angles serve to keep you unbalanced and slightly uneasy, like Lovecraft's non-Euclidean geometry. The acting is stellar, and while many of the most salacious elements of the book have been toned down, there's still an undercurrent of sadism and menace that permeates the unfolding action.  No matter how many times I've seen it, its still as brutally creepy as the first time I watched it.

#5 - Burn, Witch, Burn (UK 1962) aka Night of the Eagle

This is one of my favorite films, and I am constantly amazed by how few people are familiar with it. Of course I'm amazed by how few people are familiar with the works of Fritz Leiber. Anyway.

This is a brilliantly suspenseful little thriller written by Leiber, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson, based on Leiber's novel Conjure Wife. Artfully directed by Sidney Hayers, the film centers on a university psychology professor (Peter Wyngarde) who discovers his wife (Janet Blair) is a practicing witch, who credits her ministrations with their successful life.  He tells her to knock that off forthwith and -- well, let's just say, boys, you should listen to your wife.

#4 - The Host (South Korea 2006)

You're minding your own business, running your little dock-side snack bar, when suddenly something monstrous and slimy emerges from the water and starts devouring everyone in its path. Hey, it happens. But The Host is much more than a monster movie --although the monster is quite grotesquely wonderful. It's layers of political and social commentary, an environmental cautionary tale, and a touching treatise on family.

Song Kang-ho is especially endearing as the somewhat dim hero, the special effects are great, and the action and story are top-notch.

#3- Stir of Echoes (US 1999)

Based on the novel by Richard Matheson (again), this is another brilliant little film that too few people saw. Kevin Bacon stars as a working-class dad who, after a post-hypnotic suggestion, begins to see visions of a girl who disappeared from his neighborhood, and becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to her  Both a taut thriller and a resonant ghost story, this is suspenseful and unpredictable right through to the end. And the final scene sticks for a long, long time.

#2 - The Devil's Backbone (Spain 2001)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy), the film is set at a orphanage in the Spanish countryside during the Spanish Civil War, where a little boy, Carlos, is sent while his father is away fighting. Carlos soon finds himself haunted by the ghost of a murdered orphan, who cryptically indicates that soon "many will die."

Evocative and mesmerizing, the film's great impact comes from capturing the helplessness of childhood, the terror of feeling on your own against forces far greater than yourself. The story is intelligent and direction and acting elegant. One of the best ghost stories of the last 20 years.

#1 - Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (US 1973)

I saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark when it premiered on TV.  I was 9, and it scarred me for life. Really. Scarred. For. Life.  I don't think I slept for weeks. Hell, I still have to make sure the closet door is closed before I go to bed. I am always nervous in the shower. Good grief, I'm looking behind myself right now as I'm typing this.

Made for TV, the film stars Kim Darby and Jim Hutton as a distracted couple moving into the wife's grandmother's old house.  Note to self: along with avoiding lonely farmhouses and remote cabins, don't move into any creepy old house inherited from a creepy old relative. Sell it, sight unseen. And for dog's sake, if you find something bricked up, DON'T UNBRICK IT. Things get bricked up for a reason.

Sally Farnham (Darby) ignores my advice from the future and unbricks the old fireplace and finds a little door. Well, that can't be good. Things go rapidly downhill from there. Way, way downhill, the kind of downhill with creepy little whispery voices and creepy little hands under the table and dead interior decorators that you can't readily explain.

Veteran TV director John Newland maximizes the creep factor (and the lack of credible special effects in 1973) by judicious use of shadows and sound effects. It might have been only a 70-minute made-for-TV movie, but to this day, it remains the scariest thing I've ever seen.

P.S. You can't get Don't Be Afraid of the Dark on Netflix. It's too scary -- just kidding. Well, maybe not kidding.  But you can order it print-on-demand from Amazon.  I think that's the only place you can find it. However, in January Guillermo del Toro is bringing a remake to the big screen. You can see the trailer here. And now I'm going to get back to never sleeping again.

No comments:

Post a Comment