With Halloween just around the corner I thought I would use this opportunity to discuss my favorite part of America’s true beloved holiday, scary movies. There is something exhilarating about absorbing a truly frightening film or for that matter passively watching a bad horror movie with friends. While some people seek thrills by climbing mountain faces, jumping out of airplanes, or fleeing from angry bulls (seriously, can anyone truly explain Pamplona, Spain’s Running of the Bulls gala of insanity) the majority of us turn to cinema for our adrenaline fixes. Since the dawn of the celluloid filmmakers have been dishing out films reserved for those with a taste for the macabre.
Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true; people will always yearn for those cinematic chills. The demand, however big it may be, is always constant with horror films. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre respectively). The 1970’s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the horror genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there. The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980’s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, which began with a slump in the genre followed by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films–the Party of Five horror heyday, as I like to call it.
Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, IV opens this weekend I believe along with some ultra violent arctic vampire movie) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. Personally I think horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still over the years despite a saturated market of genre films there was a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.
Now I could use the rest of this column to list the obvious horror film masterpieces–The Shining, The Exorcist, Halloween, Alien, Wait Until Dark, A Nightmare on Elm St., Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby etc etc–but I thought it would be better to discuss the sect of underrated, overlooked, and forgotten gems in the genre that are just waiting to be discovered
Similar to the current, “Asian Extreme” horror subgenre as I believe it’s being referred to, there was a slew of gritty international slasher films coming out of Europe, specifically Italy, during the late 70s and 80s. While there are a number of classics from this wave there is one pinnacle film that stands proud with the best of the best as one frightening cinematic experience. Dario Argento has been called the European Hitchcock for his unique sense of visual style, use of wonderfully creepy soundtrack scoring and a diverse canon of thrillers behind him. If this statement is true then 1977’s Suspiria may be his Spellbound crossed with Psycho. This eerie supernatural thriller relies on stunning cinematography, intense sound effects, a brilliant use of color, unusual setting (creepy German gothic dance school in the woods) and sheer gothic atmosphere for its scares, rather than simple gore tactics (although the film is pretty brutal in its own right). While the film may seem dated thanks to horrible overdubbing (a standard norm during its filming) and some rather silly low-budget special effects during its finale, this movie lives up to its corny tagline–“The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92”–as one of the most frightening roller coaster rides you’ll ever encounter. Also check out Argento’s Tenebre and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and Mario Bava’s Black Sunday.
Some of the scariest films out there aren’t necessarily categorized as horror, but rather psychological thrillers or dramas. Surrealist auteur David Lynch is a master of building scenes of sheer suspense, and has long used this tactic in just about every film he envisions. Still his freakiest film to date has to be the curiously overlooked Lost Highway. While the film itself is a bit of a WTF thanks to Lynch’s devotion to not spoon feeding his viewers meanings or intentions, it features some of the most intense and spine chilling moments of any film he or others have done, particularly thanks to a creepy performance by Robert Blake as the pale-faced Mystery Man who lacks eyebrows and videotapes people while they’re sleeping.
Adrian Lynes is often labeled as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful but his true masterpiece is a little sleeper circa 1990, Jacob’s Ladder. Tim Robbins (in his best performance) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and even more serious issues such as government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh. Other good psychological gems to add to your Netflix, The Wicker Man (original), Roman Polanski’s brilliant Repulsion, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, & Brad Anderson’s Session 9.
Today most people associate horror movies with the knife/axe/power tool wielding slashers that have flooded the market over the years; however, some of the original and best horror films are those dealing with the classic tale of monsters. Fan of the early Japanese monster movies like Godzilla or Rodan? If so check out the recent Korean gem, The Host, a film that not only redefines this corny genre but is a pretty suspenseful movie. Always adored the dark horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London? Check out another fun British werewolf film Dog Soldiers, which is a high-octane cat and mouse chase film set in a creepy English forest. Think vampire films are cool? Check out the cool 80s bloodsuckers in the desert road movie, Near Dark, starring a baaddasss cast of 80s actors including a memorable Bill Paxton.
Forget the countless Saw films, the pointless torture porn of Hostel, the recycled Japanese PG-13 ghost story movie remakes and pointless sequels/prequels to classics. Since 2000 there have been a number of quality frighteners creeping past the mainstream eye. The extremely scary, keep you on the edge of your seat 2005 spelunking nightmare film, The Descent relied on Alienesque claustrophobic suspense, creepy creature effects and fast-paced cinematography to create what is hands down the scariest movie in a long time. Before remaking a lackluster Wes Craven 80s horror cult favorite, The Hills Have Eyes, Frenchman Alexandre Aja made an extremely disturbing and chilling slasher, High Tension, which, despite a critically disparaged finale, is a pretty frightening film experience. Two Spanish speaking up and coming directors took the classic ghost story in brilliant directions with The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro) The Others (Alejandro Amenábar). Japanese shock filmmaker Takashi Miike has made a number of cult gross-out films but none compare to his slow burning suspense masterpiece, Audition, which features one of the most F’ed up and terrifying endings imaginable.
For anyone looking for a fix of chills this Halloween or whenever for that matter, seek out some of these titles. Sure there is a time and a place for the fun, goofy, and campy horror films of past and present, but there is no denying that wonderful feeling you get from a truly unique and frightening piece of cinema.