I had a great chat with a few friends on the weekend about how we hate the experience of people ridiculing horror movies at the cinema. Really, they pay almosttwenty bucks just so they can show how superior they are to a movie? It was reported that the screening of the classic giallo Deep Red at MIFF was met with this kind of response, people breaking out in laughter at almost every line. There unintentionally humorous parts in pretty much every movie but really folks, it's not that funny. What I always notice about the phenomenon is how joyless the laughter is. So, it's the time of year to counter that gormless bullshit with a little celebration.
When I was a kid I'd see American cartoons where kids dressed up for Halloween and wished we'd do it where I was. But October 31 in Townsville is already muggy and getting lollies out of any of even my nice middle class neighbours would have been frightening. Well, we had cracker night.
What didn't go away was an affinity with horror. Dark skies and howling storms were my favourite weather as a child (they were, apart from anything else, a break from the heat) and never better than with a stark black and white ghost story on tv or one that played in my head, all atmosphere and no plot to interrupt the atmosphere.
Even through ages when it feels best to reject anything that suggests I might not be above everything (my twenties) I still came back to this most vulnerable of genres, the one that most freely opens itself to ridicule and the one that (even more than science fiction) explores ideas through allegory. The cost of this is that the more I understand this the clearer the genre's rejection by the more conventionally minded of audiences becomes. I steadily removed the horror element from the film night I ran a few years back so that by the last year out of thirty-seven titles only three could qualify as horror and it was still considered to be dominated by the genre. That's not bad maths on their part, they're really saying that one title for them is too many. But on Halloween they can have no excuse (except that we still don't celebrate it here, of course, but still...)
So, here is a small host of titles to choose from for the time poor and negligent of the genre should a marathon appeal. Take one from each category being mindful of mixing up old and new, colour and black and white, slow and action packed etc, keeping the strangest ones for very early on and last, keep the food light and the alcohol paced, the thoughts pure and the sense of integrity and ethics solid for a fair day's pay for a fair day's- sorry, not sleeping well, lately. Anyway...
One caveat in my choices here is that, after all this, I don't think horror movies should be fun; I watch them because I like the scare and the disturbance. But I am in a minority so I have to play nice and broaden the horizon here.
All these selections are locally available on dvd and/or blu-ray. These are notthe only ones I like in each category just the ones I can think of as I type this. Also, if one example has had a lot of imitators I tend to leave it as one of a kind and try and think of another that isn't like it. So, Halloween but not Friday the 13th, Blair Witch but not Paranormal Activity etc.
Horror Comedy: Died? I nearly laughed!
Generally something I hate as rather than be a mix it's usually a series of cliches gaffer-taped together and trotted out so rapidly that you don't get a chance to realise that mere recognition of a trope isn't the same as making a funny comment on it. Put one of these in as the third from the start to break the mood a tad.
Shaun of the Dead: The reason this might work at the end of the day is that the comedy side of it isn't American like the reference-gag-heavy Scary Movie series but dowdy from the marrow out British. The scene in which the hero discovers the Romero zombies have taken over is a masterpiece of delayed revelation due to his blinkered laddishness. It just gets better from there and does so by amping up the horror when needed. Both work. "Just look at the face: it's vacant, with a hint of sadness. Like a drunk who's lost a bet."
Arsenic and Old Lace: Barely oblique references to the horror only newly established in Hollywood, this screwball comedy keeps the dark side close. "He said I looked like Boris Karloff!"
Scream: The only self-referential entry into the post-mod 90s ironyfest that works and mostly because veteran Wes Craven knows his horror. Good casting and great dialogue do the rest. After this, the deluge. "What's you're favourite scary movie?"
Young Frankenstein: You won't need to be well schooled in the Universal horror classics that this film insists on referencing; it's funny in its own right and continuously. Gene Wilder plays it just under screaming hysteria and Marty Feldman counters with his goopy absurdism. The Gene Hackman scene is a cross between WC Fields and James Whale and one of the funniest things in any horror comedy. And then there's the secret passage scene. "PUT - THE CANDLE - BECK!"
Ghosts: do you see what I see?
One of my favourite of all the sub genres, the ghost tale can carry through its atmosphere alone. The more restrained the scares the better, IMHO, as dread last longer than surprise. All good ghost stories have more at stake than the spookiness.
The Haunting: Is the house evil or is it just bad plumbing? Great effects even for now from this steadily creepy 1962 outing. The sadness of the central core as it is slowly revealed is profoundly affecting. Because it's so well conceived and paced I could watch this weekly. "Whatever walked there walked alone."
The Eye: The Sixth Sense spawned an impoverished mass of cover versions worldwide but this entry from the always intriguing Pang brothers went well beyond the original and left its own copyable mark. (If the people in this film aren't speaking Cantonese you are watching the wrong version.) "Who ARE you?"
Dark Water: The inventor of J-horror, Hideo Nakata, almost closed the game with what is the sub-genre's apex. The mother and daughter relationship at its centre are enough to make the restrained scares physically chilling. There is a coda that seems very feel-good but will wrap your neck in icicles later when it creeps up on you. Genius. No cheese, please, we're Japanese. (You are forbidden to watch the American remake until you have seen this original.) "Mamaaaa!"
Lake Mungo: Very happy to include an Australian entry. This tale of grief and its varying resonance is presented as the kind of cinema documentary that characterised the late noughties when it was made. This allows for a great deal of the plot to emerge with its use of home video and news reportage. The climactic moment is one of the most shivery things I've seen. It's not from nowhere but you just do not expect it. At all. Masterpiece. Please support it by hiring or buying. "Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."
Weird: No Tribe Shall Take Them!
There's a lot of this is sloppy thinking masquerading as avantegardism but the pinnacles of it (including my favourite film ever) usually have a basis in reality and can serve as fables. They are usually low on jump-scares but big on the disturbing idea and unsettling atmosphere. Don't start with one of these unless everyone is ready for it. Leave it until the pikers pike and the harder core remain.
Eraserhead: Fable of expectant parents' fears turned nightmarishly real is set in a place that only vaguely resembles our own world. Doesn't behave like any horror movie before it and very few of its imitators got it enough to make even the generic rubbish that followed on from The Exorcist or Romero's zombie fests. It's not genre. It barely qualifies as horror but there's really no other useful thing to call it. "Ooooh, you are sick."
Pulse: A lonely boy commits suicide after visiting a website that promises a meeting with a ghost. Without anyone noticing, this has become an epidemic. One of the strangest and creepiest horror outings doesn't quite belong in the J-horror stable as it lacks too many of the traits. Like its characters it doesn't seems to belong anywhere. Slow but sure. "Would you like to meet a ghost?"
Videodrome: Cronenberg's most Cronenbergian Cronenberg is the tale of a self-styled media maverick who comes across what seems to be the last word in outlaw shows, apparently real torture that compels like nothing else. He is about to go somewhere like nowhere else. A monumentally original idea taken to its last gasp with style so good it's almost better known by its imitators. "Long live the new flesh."
A Tale of Two Sisters: South Korean cinema came up two strands in response to J-horror. One was blind copying and the other was altogether of its own kind. This one begins with a kind of wicked stepmother theme but goes so far beyond it that we are forced to call it horror for fear of what else might give it name. "There was a girl under the kitchen sink."
Once a black magic themed sub genre, zombies have staggered their way into our hearts lately with the cable show Walking Dead. A popular ridicule of this show has it a soap opera with occasional undead incursions. Well, they all are, there's really not a lot of depth you're going to get out of a zombie although Romero tried with the later entries into the Dead series.
Night of the Living Dead: The original and the best. Romero's stroke of genius was to remove the voodoo and any other backstory and just show the threat and how the living cope with it. One of the most influential films in history and not just for horror movies. "Coming to get you Barb ar rah."
Dawn of the Dead: If it isn't the 1978 one don't watch it until you've seen this original. Consumerism and the modern world will not cope well when the things it takes for granted start failing. And there are zombies. "They're us, that's all, when there's no more room in hell."
City of the Living Dead: Lucio Fulci's collision of HP lovecraft and Romeroish zombies is thick with atmosphere and apocalyptic weirdness. Typical zombie fare it ain't. High style it is."It's her... Mrs. Holden. This morning she was inside a coffin at the funeral home, and now she's here in my kitchen!"
REC: Non-stop found footage infected zombies quarrantined in a Barcelona apartment block goes where you will not expect it. At less than ninety minutes it cannot outstay its welcome but you won't even be thinking that. "We have to tape everything, Pablo."
Devils and Inferno: phew, hot in here.
As with any supernatural genre devil movies should never assume their audiences actually believe in the phenomena they present.
The Exorcist: Changed the horror movie game by taking the gothic out of the horror and pushing the everyday so far forward that the nasty stuff is far scarier than it would have been with a lot of uplighting and orchestral hits. The 70s was when mainstream cinema got stark and tough. Here's the horror entry. Only its cover versions (made by the truckload after its massive success) brought any cheese to it and they stuffed the crust. "Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it."
Hellraiser: Less an original than a consolidation of cine-horror style from its decade, the 80s. Hellraiser plays on a harsh idea of pentitence and throws it into a very rich stew of gender roles and decadence. Adapted and reimagined by the source material's author, Clive Barker, Hellraiser brings the stamp of authenticity and deserves its milestone status. "Please, no tears, it's a waste of good suffering."
Rosemary's Baby: A constantly welling paranoia tale which might well be borne out. Polanski on all cylinders made this histrionics-free contemporary horror which never grows old."Anyone for tannis?"
Suspiria: Ultraviolent and often silly when not ultraviolent, Suspiria yet remains a favourite for its adherence to the idea that nightmares are scary because the dreamer can't control them works in the cinema as well. If you can accept that this film will pose no conceptual problem for you. In fact, the sole draggy scene is one in which a lot of the phenomena are explained. You could take that out and never notice. Huge widescreen saturated colour pushes red and blue and the raspy whispering never stops. One of the best horror music scores ever."Susie... Sarah... I once read that names which begin with the letter 'S' are the names of SNAKES! Sssss! Ssssss!"
Slashers: out they go!
A genre that came to be associated with a teenaged audience as they were increasingly treated to the gratifying sight of all the other kids at school getting gutted or sliced up.
Peeping Tom: Killing with cinema itself, Peeping Tom digs deep into the making of an ice cold monster. Is there still a human in there? Watch and see. Shocked its original audiences and killed its director's career in his homeland. Way to go out. "All this filming. It can't be healthy."
Psycho: The Grandaddy of them all, Hitchcock's stark 1960 horror still shocks with its violence and steadily creepy atmosphere. "Mother!"
Halloween: The first of the teen slashers which would dominate the decade that followed it. Not the first final girl but probably the one that got the phrase going. The first of the self-reprising monsters. Though derivative, its music score spawned several decades of copyists. Until the Blair Witch Project it was the most successful indy movie ever. But the real reason you should put it into your October 31st lineup is that it's still great. Light cheese for its time but whole dairies of it from decades of imitation. One big difference between it and those is that it doesn't need gore or blood to deliver its threats or thrills. It's made of cinema rather than dollar signs. "That was the Boogieman."
Candyman: Clive Barker story uses urban mythology directly to house its monster whose presence is perfectly constructed from popular whispers to physicality. But where does he really live? Brilliant undersung piece from the 90s. "Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman Candyman!"
Vampires: Fangs for the Memory.
Not big on this subby as even its reinventions quickly get lost in cliche. Nevertheless here are some sparks of originality.
Dracula: Universal 1931. Carnival showman Todd Browning knew his freakishness but left the tent for something more German and unsettling. Bela Lugosi was perfectly cast as the suave other. Updating the Stoker setting to contemporary Europe proved a hit by showing this horror threatened its audiences. There is no music score for this version which can grate with people unused to early cinema. Some dvd releases provide a good one by Phillip Glass but it you put it on early in the proceedings you should get through."Leesssen to dem ... what mewzic they mike."
Martin: If he's just a mixed up teenager he's on the path to hell for his crimes. If he really is a vampire he is tragic as he will forever be confused and guilty. Romero showed us a vampire as a subject for contemporary teen social realism. Documentary in feel and with generations in mind, Martin might well be Romero's real masterpiece. The sole gothic elements play like memories or fantasies in black and white and of faster stock. They invade the 70s brown jacket colour with jarring clarity. Of it's descendants, Twilight feels too slick and Buffy played too much to the crowd. Martin still stands alone. "Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever."
Let the Right One In: Vampirism and dependency but not where you might expect them. This Nordic take uses the icy weather and icier outer-urban architecture to present a vampire smaller than Martin but no less worrying. The attack scenes have an effective near-cctv frankness to them. The Stephen King style bullied boy thread is given more depth that would suggest and so is easily tolerated. The arc of sadness in the events and where they leave the participants is of the delayed reaction type and so more devastating for it. "Oskar, I do it because I have to."
Thirst: Park Chan Wook who made the solid and haunting Vengeance trilogy held on to the haunting for this own-tribe tale of parasitic need, the protocols of faith, family life and unending lust. As with his best work, he plays the high emotion passages low and ramps up the everyday. Force of life, indeed. "He'd offer me his blood if he wasn't in a coma."
Paranoia: I know I'm crazy but they're still out there!
A favourite of mine as it's close to genuine human states like schizophrenia. The original Twilight Zone played a lot along these lines which is why it's so durable. The realisation of such fears can accomodate great allegory. And still be scary.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers: Remade several times. People are replaced with emotionless hive-minded automatons. Is one's humanity with all its pain and arrogance really preferrable? One of the few cases where remakes have matched the originals. Either the 56 or 78 versions will do. "There's no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling."
The Thing: What? Where? Who goes there? Brilliant use of isolated setting limiting the suspect group as the infiltration spreads. Go for either the 50s or 80s remake as both are superb. The 2011 cover version did not need to be made nor should have been. It's not bad but it's not great."Watch the sky! Watch the sky!"
Jacob's Ladder: A normal guy keeps seeing terrifying mutated forms one minute and normal people the next. It gets deeper and worse as he seems to lose control of everything he knows as reality. Is this the reality? Some feel that the ending is a problem but even if it is the journey is sooooo good. DON'T REMAKE THIS FILM! "The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life."
The Tenant: Bloke moves into a Paris flat and turns into its previous tenant or is he manipulated into it by all the others? Key things are never stated but the paranoia once it takes over wouldn't be letting anything like that through, anyway. A tour de force. "Drinks for everyone! Everyone except for him."
Not a too hard box as much as representatives of sub genres which I don't like enough to list four each. Contains some all time favourites, though.
The Blair Witch Project: Although elements of it are derivative it provided a blend and execution that made it its own film, one that created a sub-genre (found footage) which is still with us, albeit in exhausted form. Nevertheless, a great campfire tale that haunts to this day. "I'm afraid to close my eyes. I'm afraid to open them."
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: With only the slightest amount of the red stuff and a lot of suggestion Tobe Hooper's debut feature creates a solid atmosphere of threatening weirdness 'mong the folks out bah the ol' slaughterhouse. Spawned a sub industry of scary hick movies but none that quite got the real point. I grew up in North Queensland. This feels like home. "We got some barbeque in back if you want."
Ginger Snaps: Werewolves reinvented with Buffy smarts and a sense of real mounting tragedy. Ace! "The fuck, Bee. This is your idea. If you don't like your ideas, stop having them. "
God Told Me To: At first this looks like a twist on devil movies but boy does it go places. Written and directed by rapid fire concept auteur Larry Cohen who even managed a little of his own blaxploitation in there toward the end. Fascinating, breathless and beautiful. "Say it! Say the words!"
So, there ya go. I know, it's mostly mainstream but I had to keep it Austenian: Access and Accessibility. Have fun and shiver, now.