The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway,” Lynch’s seventh feature film, does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.
(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)
Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and 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. 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 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the 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 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.
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, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the “fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx” genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.
The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.
Lost Highway – David Lynch, 1997
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. “Lost Highway” is often overlooked amidst the auteur’s more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake’s bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti’s creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch’s films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t.” “Lost Highway” does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.”
Suspiria – Dario Argento, 1977
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. “Suspiria” is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, “Suspiria” was Argento’s first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, “Suspiria” manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.
Jacob’s Ladder – Adrian Lyne, 1990
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.
The Fly – David Cronenberg, 1986
To be fair Cronenberg’s gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg’s true raison d’etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg’s many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, “be afraid, be very afraid.” An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg’s grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.
The Descent – Neil Marshall, 2005
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. “The Descent” is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, “The Descent” is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall’s premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.
Wait Until Dark – Terrence Young, 1966
One might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.
Repulsion – Roman Polanski, 1965
Polanski is generally credited for Rosemary’s Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and “Repulsion,” remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” (“Baby” and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. “Repulsion’s” Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister’s sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film’s many unexpected scares.
Session 9 – Brad Anderson, 2001
Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly “fear of travel” picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale’s finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital’s twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.
The Begotten – E. Elias Merhige, 1991
Arguably the most obscure films on this list, “The Begotten” is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, “The Begotten” may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige’s film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film’s lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), “The Begotten” is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of “The Begotten” in the equally creepy music video for the song “Cryptorchid,” which Merhige helmed.
Them – David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the “Extreme Asian” movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film’s charm not to mention the director’s knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film’s opening and carries through to the end.
I suppose in order to ponder over recent films destined for cult status it’s important to define what it is that makes a movie a cult classic?
For some it’s defined by niche genres. Everything from horror, exploitation, dubbed martial arts flicks, anything from teen film maestro John Hughes to films that embody that “so awful it’s good” mentality. For others cult status is determined by simple economics. How a film is received in theaters (generally sub-par) versus home consumption (record breaking sales)? What kind of budget was used? Finally cult films are the ones that garner a loyal following, for example hordes attending midnight screenings or entire festivals dedicated to a classic’s onscreen world. And most importantly these are the classics that can be revisited time after time and always seem to improve with age.
The Big Lebowski was the Coen’s follow up to the duo’s acclaimed baby Fargo, the Minnesota set dark comedy that helped launch the indie darlings to their Oscar winning status they have today. Upon its release Lebowski was a flop, both critically and financially. I distinctly remember seeing the film in a fairly empty theater and beforehand being disappointed by the film’s fair share of mediocre reviews. Still in typical cult film fashion when Lebowski hit the video racks it slowly became an underground phenomenon.
Today the film is still screened around the country on college campuses and late night art house theater showings. DVD sales continue to be strong (the film is one of Amazon.com’s best sellers) and the film even has its own national festival,Lebowski Fest, which holds its seventh annual gala this July in Louisville, KY and also tours other major cities. When was the last time you saw a film that had this much potential for cult grandeur?
In all my pondering of this question the only recent cult classic I could come up with was 2001s Donnie Darko, a film which, personally I think is overrated but nevertheless has established an impressive underground following. LikeLebowski the film was a dud in the box office and baffled most critics but is now a staple at most midnight screenings.
In fact this may be the only true cult film this side of the new millennium.
Sure 2004s Napoleon Dynamite was quickly labeled cult upon its release, mainly because the film seemed like one giant homage to all things that have made films cult classics in the past, particularly 80s pop culture. Ultimately though the film more comfortably joined the ranks of low-budget indie success stories like The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I mean honestly when was the last time anyone mentioned these films.
The biggest problem today is too many films make attempts at establishing themselves as cult classics before the film is even released. Case in point 2006s overly hyped serpents riding the friendly skies action flick, Snakes on a Plane. Here’s a film that really did have potential to be one of those so-bad-it’s-good action films but once all the internet rumors started flying regarding Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement and admiration for the script’s title the film went from a potentially low-budget, straight to video action film to a “cult film” pet project for a major studio. More money was allotted to the budget, extra more “risqué” scenes were added, and Sam Jackson was even spoon fed a “soon to be memorable catch phrase.” Still two years later, does anyone really give a damn about those “motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane?”
The Snakes experiment ultimately showed that you couldn’t force the process of a film gaining cult status. It’s the same way these big Hollywood remakes of once cherished cult horror classics–a Paris Hilton take on the classic Vincent Price filmHouse of Wax or the upcoming Michael Bay and Co. helmed remake of Friday the 13th–will never truly capture the mass appeal that the originals still hold. There is even an upcoming remake of Death Race 2000, that 1970s era lethal muscle car cult favorite, by the guy who made Mortal Kombat into a movie.
Even certain directors deemed cult film Gods–Tarantino, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Richard Linklater, and John Waters–couldn’t seem to reclaim their early cult status with newest endeavors. Some have moved into the mainstream eye (The Coens, David Cronenberg), some have been completely forgotten about (Mike Judge’s last film Idiocracy was actually pretty funny but failed to make any kind of splash). Even a television show like Lost, which often garners comparisons to Lynch’s 90s cult classic turned mass phenomenon, Twin Peaks, is just too soap operatic and mainstream to truly be considered cult, despite its loyal following and hundreds, if not thousands of internet message boards dissecting every moment.
There is something cool about a film or show or musician that can create such niche but loyal fan base and can stand the test of time. Perhaps Hollywood needs to let another Lebowski or Spinal Tap just come out on its own. Until then I’ll always have the dude, or his Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
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.