Monday, November 18, 2013

You think so, Bobby? You think they're, uh, they're evil sluts?

Twixt got me thinking about whether egocentrism is a necessary condition for a great artist. In the case of Francis Ford Coppola, his hubrise, grandiose ambitions and preoccupation with his own artistic persona have been evident throughout his body of work, and they largely motivate many of the best aspects of his films, as well as the worst. I can't help admiring Coppola's obvious, sincere desire to reinvent himself with almost every film rather than chasing his past success, even if it occasionally results in his disappearing up his own ass.* Twixt, the latest of Coppola's deliberate attempts at lower-budget, esoteric "student" filmmaking, frequently threatens to do just that - the movie always seems like it's just a moment away from becoming completely ridiculous, but that's also what makes it so compelling. It's a mess, but a fascinating mess, the kind of batshit experiment that perhaps only a great filmmaker with nothing to lose can make.

Coppola's surrogate protagonist is Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), a writer of trashy horror novels who is struggling with a strained marriage (Kilmer's ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, plays Baltimore's wife), money troubles, a drinking problem and unresolved grief over the accidental death of his teenage daughter. When visiting the small town of Swann Valley for a book signing, the sheriff (Bruce Dern), himself an aspiring horror writer, shares his suspicions that the town may have a vampire problem with Baltimore. This, coupled with a visit to a hotel where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed and a long night of drinking, causes Baltimore to have a dream (OR IS IT) about the mysterious hotel, a ghostly young girl (Elle Fanning) and a visit with Poe (Ben Chaplin) himself. The dream inspires Baltimore to start work on a new novel, and perhaps the best thing about Twixt is the way it captures the strange, internal journey of writing, constantly being in one's own head, eventually having to confront the most uncomfortable aspects of oneself in order to produce great work (or, as the hilarious final scene suggests, even pretty good work).

Coppola has always had these self-reflexive tendencies in his work - think of the scene where he inserts himself in Apocalypse Now with a film crew, announcing that it's a movie, or movies like One From the Heart or Dracula that are at once nakedly personal and preoccupied with the artifice of the creative process. One of the most revealing aspects of Twixt is that his artist surrogate is a hack who knows he's doing commercial hackwork, and the suggestion is that, as deep as he goes to write his latest book, it's no less schlocky than the rest of his work. Keep in mind that this is a movie by a director who has always seemed slightly embarrassed by the pulpy, crowd-pleasing origins of his most beloved movie, who made two sequels that deliberately subvert the things that made the first one popular (with varying degress of success, obviously), and who has always held onto (and is realizing, now more than ever) his dream of being a truly independent filmmaker. That Twixt is largely an homage to Coppola's mentor, Roger Corman, and a callback to Coppola's first movie, the Corman-produced Dementia 13, makes a lot of sense in this light. It's a case of a filmmaker no longer concerned with critical acclaim or distinctions between good and bad taste, throwing all these crazy ideas of his at the wall and seeing what sticks. And not all of it does, but it's exciting to watch it all splat against the wall.

This recklessness extends to the technical aspects of the film as well - the digital cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is sharp to the point of artificiality, and the use of greenscreen, surreal digital effects and weird, ambient sound design and music are so unabashedly kitschy that they transcend kitsch and become...I don't know what, but fascinating in ways that transcend our normal understanding of "good" and "bad" filmmaking. The performances are deliberately arch and theatrical, and Val Kilmer is given the opportunity to both play scenes of authentic grief and despair and do impressions of Marlon Brando and a gay basketball player from the '60s. Not all of it works, even in a metatextual way - a barely realized subplot about Satan-worshipping bikers that look like a Goth remake of The Outsiders is pretty painful, and there's a scene involving an Ouija board that provokes bad laughs. They're forgivable missteps, though, the byproduct of an artist truly pushing himself out of his comfort zone. A lot of the negative reviews of Twixt complained that it's an old fogey's idea of rebellious filmmaking, but to me that's precisely its charm. When I read about Coppola's aborted attempt to make this an interactive, Choose Your Own Adventure-style film, his disastrous attempt to pull this off at, of all places, Comic Con, and how he imagined and dictated the entire story on his iPhone when he was drunk in Istanbul, I'm filled with affection for the guy.

At the heart of Twixt is how Baltimore's creative process leads him to confront the memory of his daughter's death and incorporate it into his work. The details in the movie closely mirror the death of Coppola's eldest son, Gian Carlo, in a boating accident in 1986. This is the director's most naked expression of his grief and guilt over such an unimaginable loss; the dark joke is that it's that the catharsis the main character needs to experience to make the enormous creative leap of writing about vampires instead of witches. It's possible to read this all cynically, that Coppola is saying that artists mine our most personal, painful experiences for work that ultimately serves no greater purpose than fleeting entertainment for audiences who don't give a damn about the process. But Coppola's always been a romantic at heart, and I take the opposite reading out of it - all art, no matter how trashy, that comes from a personal place is valuable in a way that matters more than the reviews or sales. It's a great message, and while not every aspect of Twixt is successful, it's one of the most unpredictable and alive movies I've seen this year. It's funny, I began this review with the notion that Twixt was a flawed but fascinating experiment, but writing about it has already bumped it up half a star in my estimation; I suspect it's going to be a rewarding movie to revisit as time goes by.

*Then again, I feel more strongly than ever that we place way too much importance on an artist's consistency. Failure is an inevitable part of taking real risks, and the least successful parts of a movie like Twixt are still more interesting to me than predictable competence. At the very least, Coppola has become far more interesting than his protege, George Lucas, actually making the kinds of experimental movies Lucas claims he wants to make while he instead spends his time producing Red Tails and selling his legacy to Disney. But that's another topic for another day.

P.S.: Be sure to check out Bill Ryan and Keith Uhlich's four-part conversation about Twixt, which helped a great deal in clarifying my own response to the film.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#10-1)

Finally, we arrive at the top ten and the very best, in my humble opinion, of '80s horror. I have to admit to feeling a little relieved that this project is over. I feel like a kid on Halloween night, half-asleep in his Batman costume, surrounded by candy wrappers, his belly swollen and his breathing labored.

I'm actually eating a mini Butterfinger as I type this. When kids love Trick 'r Treating but don't particularly care for candy, dad wins.

10. Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985)

Although Day of the Dead's reputation has improved a great deal since it was released to mixed-negative reviews and disappointing box office in 1985, it's still quite a divisive film - I've had two different friends describe their feelings about the movie in almost exactly the same language - "I try to like it but I just can't." And Romero's final entry in the original Dead trilogy (the director's own favorite) does seem to be daring you to like it in some ways - the EC-influenced color palette of Dawn of the Dead is replaced with the drab grays of the underground mine that is the movie's main location, the gore is more starkly realistic than either of the earlier films and, worst of all, there are very few likable characters. Much of the film's first half is devoted to the characters arguing with each other - the scientists who are struggling to find a solution and the soldiers, led by the brutish Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who'd just as soon kill first and ask questions later. For a lot of viewers, this grows monotonous, and I can't blame them; I used to feel the same way, actually. But on repeat viewings, it becomes clearer that, though Romero's view of our ability to work together is hardly rose-tinted, there's more hope in the film than it seems. As with its predecessor, Day of the Dead has no faith in humanity's collective ability to live through catastrophe, but it does leave the door open for the individual to survive and make a new, perhaps better life. As with many cynics, at heart Romero is a die-hard humanist. Day of the Dead isn't the best of Romero's zombie films, but it might be the most thematically interesting. At the very least, it represent's Tom Savini's best work - three decades later, his remarkable, disgusting splatter effects still hold up.

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

After the many sequels of varying quality, the atrocious remake and the merchandising, it's easy to forget that the first film in this long-running franchise is actually excellent. It's certainly Wes Craven's best film, with the former humanities professor drawing heavily on his background in literature and psychology for a movie that is rich with Jungian archetypes and fairy tale logic. Made on a shoestring budget by a fledgling independent distributor called New Line Cinema, A Nightmare on Elm Street touched a nerve thanks to its darkly surreal imagery and the aspect of the plot that continued through much of the series and is a key to the film's resonance with its young audience - the idea of teens being threatened by a monster their parents deny exists but, in fact, those parents actually created is perfect for an audience that largely believes their parents are hypocrites who can't understand what they're going through. I saw Robert Englund participate in a Q&A at a local horror convention a few weeks ago, and he talked about how the success of a movie that had almost no marketing budget had everything to do with the punk, Goth and alternative kids who first discovered the movie and embraced it. Englund, of course, is an indispensable part of the movie's success - it's easy to forget, again, because of the campier approach New Line eventually took with the character, but his performance as Freddy is as strong an example of physical, whole-body acting as any of the great silent movie villains.

8. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)

Evil Dead 2 is one of those movies that even people who aren't usually into horror seem to dig; the movie's comic bits, presumably, override their squeamishness. And perhaps no movie better illustrates the very close relationship between comedy and horror than this one. While Army of Darkness is a straight-up comedy with talking skeletons, Evil Dead 2 is still fundamentally a horror movie, filled with chainsaws, decapitations and demons that spew black goo from their mouths and cackle at the torment they'll inflict on their victims. But the funny bits and the scary bits both work as well as they do for the same reasons - Stooges-influenced knack for staging physical comedy also motivates his direction of the gorier bits, and both the comedy and the horror come down to finding creative new ways to make Bruce Campbell suffer. And in scenes like the one where the cabin's mounted animal heads and furniture start laughing on their own and poor Ash joins in, we can see how Raimi's comic and macabre sensibilities are united by a basic sense of absurdity. As for Campbell, if Robert Englund's performance ranks with the great silent movie monsters, than Campbell is as committed as any of the silent era's physical comedians. And none of them had to wield a chainsaw and a shotgun while they were doing their schtick.

7. Aliens (James Cameron, 1979)

If Alien was, as its director Ridley Scott put it, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in space, then James Cameron's sequel is an ass-kicking crowd-pleaser in all the ways that the original isn't. By returning Ripley to LV-426 to finish off the outer gods she narrowly escaped in the earlier film, Aliens plays like a sci-fi version of Stallone's line "Do we get to win this time?" in Rambo: First Blood Part II, which Cameron co-wrote. That aside, Aliens is just as nerve-racking as its predecessor. In what might be my favorite review of his, Roger Ebert wrote, "I don't know how else to describe this: The movie made me feel bad. It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety. I walked outside and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was drained. I'm not sure "Aliens" is what we mean by entertainment. Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft." Ebert's right - it's a brilliantly made film whose primary function is to terrify the audience to the point of exhaustion. But it also features one of the strongest female performances in any genre, a cast of very well-drawn supporting characters and performances, Stan Winston's amazing effects work and a filmmaker working at the top of his game. Is there any one of us who wouldn't trade three (or four, or five) Avatar sequels for one more Cameron-directed Alien? 

6. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

Like Evil Dead II, An American Werewolf in London is a hybrid of horror and comedy where each amplifies the effect of the other. But while Raimi's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink showman, John Landis' approach to horror is as sharply crafted as his comedies. Landis has described the film's humor and horror as stemming from the idea of being a secular, skeptical person trapped in a supernatural scenario - I'm paraphrasing here, but it's about seeing the ghost of your best friend sitting across from you, and you know it's bullshit, but there he is. It's a very funny film in places, particularly the scenes involving Griffin Dunne as that dead, rapidly decaying best friend, but underneath it all is the fatalistic nature of the werewolf story, which can only end in a few ways, none of them happy. Besides that, it's an expertly made film, with a few sequences - the first wolf attack on the moors, the scene where David (David Naughton), in lycanthrope form, stalks a terrified man through an empty subway station - that could serve as textbook examples of how to build suspense, delaying a payoff until precisely the right moment. Rick Baker's work, particularly in the astonishing transformation sequence, has been endlessly praised and for good reason, but really, the entire movie is that brilliantly crafted. The final scene and cut to black, in particularly, is at once hilarious and devastating, one of the all-time great endings.

5. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)

A divisive film even among fans of Argento's previous movie, Suspiria. Inferno is meant as a sort of spiritual sequel to Suspiria, but where that movie's hallucinatory images paid off in bloody, vicious murder scenes, Inferno is quieter and more subtly menacing (save one scene, scored with Verdi's "Va, pensiero," that is as brutal as anything in the earlier film). It's also even more committed to abstract dream logic than Suspiria, drawing on the "three mothers" of De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis to imagine that there are two other mothers, in addition to the one we met in Suspiria, that reside in other cities, spreading misery and darkness. There are scenes and shots that parallel and contrast with Suspiria in fascinating ways, as well as sequences, such as the one involving an underwater ballroom populated by the dead, that surpass the early film in visual impact and fright. It's Argento's most beautiful film, too, oddly romantic, and the influence of Mario Bava on the director has never been more apparent (Bava actually supervised the effects on Inferno, the last film he worked on). You'll notice I haven't talked much about characters or plot, and they honestly don't matter that much in Inferno - I can't argue with anyone who would prefer a coherent story. But for pure, sustained atmosphere, Inferno is one of the best cinematic nightmares ever.

4. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)

I'd like to share a personal story. Creepshow was one of the first movies I really fell in love with - I rented it repeatedly from the local video store, rewound certain moments - the first appearance of the crate monster, E.G. Marshall's grisly death by thousands of cockroaches - countless times, and recounted each of the movie's lovingly crafted E.C.-inspired vignettes in great detail to my classmates. I even owned a copy of the graphic novel tie-in with gorgeous illustrations by Berni Wrightson. One night, when I was nine or ten years old, I had a terrifying, incredibly realistic dream where I was being pursued by a zombie that looked very much like the one in the first story, "Father's Day," through the woods behind my house. The dream ended with me jumping into the pond, thinking I was safe, then looking down and seeing the maggot-infested animated corpse grasping for my feet. I told my mom about it, and she told her friend Brenda, a conservative Christian who was somewhat less of a fundamentalist than Margaret White. Brenda announced that she was an expert at dream interpretation and proceeded to decipher my dream, telling me it was Jesus' way of letting me know I needed to cast aside my interest in horror movies and books because they were driving me away from Jesus and my spiritual growth. Terrified at the prospect of God sendingpersonalized horror movies to my brain to express his disappointment in me, I gave away all of my horror novels, issues of Fangoria, videos and comic book (including the Creepshow book) to friends and the town library.

Two things I learned from this. First, if you have a kid with a growing interest in scary stories, be an awesome parent and show them Creepshow. Second, even Jesus thinks that Brenda sucks.

3. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

The first time I saw The Thing was on a grainy video, recorded from cable, that I borrowed from a friend (this was a while after I realized the whole "Jesus Creepshow dream" thing was baloney, and I was still quite bitter about it). Even on a muddy, pan-and-scan copy, The Thing was terrifying enough that I had to pause the movie several times and take a break. When I reached the movie's famously ambiguous ending, the copy abruptly stopped before the credits rolled, and I thought it must have cut off before the movie was over. When I saw it again on TV a while later, I was stunned - "That's it??" It took me a while to realize why the lack of closure is actually perfect for The Thing. This was before The Thing, which is second only to Halloween in Carpenter's filmography, was generally recognized as a horror classic, and it's been gratifying to see the movie gradually get the respect it deserves. Carpenter has made a lot of fascinating and very entertaining movies, but he was clearly never more invested in a movie than he was with The Thing, and it shows in every perfectly crafted frame.

2. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

I am not trying to be cute when I say that The Fly is one of the most moving cinematic love stories. I have to refer to Matt Zoller Seitz's recent piece on the film, which sums up my feelings about the film perfectly and with more eloquence than I'm capable of. He's right, it's a very sexy movie initially, and Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum have terrific chemistry - you can see Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife having a long and happy relationship, which makes Brundle's transformation all the more painful. It's a movie that illustrates how the entirety of someone's life can be forever altered by the simplest oversight, with tragic consequences. It's as good as any straight drama about a protagonist who has a terminal illness and the people who love them, but its genre allows Cronenberg to deal with the physical and emotional realities of dying with more bluntness and honesty than most mainstream movies would dare. I've put off seeing Amour, and I don't doubt it's as powerful as people have said, but I kind of feel like it's an experience I don't need, because I already have The Fly. Plus, I doubt Amour has a baboon being turned inside out or a woman giving birth to a giant larva.

1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Well, of course. But it feels kind of funny putting this on an '80s list, because Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece doesn't really feel representative of its decade. Or the decade before; even the garish '70s decor of the Overlook Hotel is slightly off, as it would be in a dream. Stanley Kubrick's movies have a tendency to feel out of time, and this was never more appropriate than in a film about a malevolent hotel that is, in a sense, unstuck in time. This out-of-time quality may have been why the movie, though commercially successful, was roundly rejected by horror fans in 1980 - there's an issue of Fangoria with the results of a poll of its readers that placed The Shining at the top of the "worst of 1980" list (Friday the 13th was voted best). So it's been amazing to watch it go from one of the first movies I truly loved, a movie that made me realize that movies are directed, but one that I could only find negative reviews of, to one that is constantly discussed and analyzed, that has inspired countless essays and art in other mediums and even a movie devoted entirely to some of the more offbeat theories about the film, one that consistently sits at or near the top of "Scariest movie ever" lists. Through it all, the movie has retained it's own unique, meticulously crafted, one-of-a-kind form of perfection. It reminds, more than any other movie, that while all art is in some sense a product of the time it was made, the greatest movies are truly timeless.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#20-11)

Another eclectic list, this one featuring PG-rated family classics next to more disturbing fare of both the supernatural and real-life variety. I like that this part of the list runs the gamut from movies I've loved my entire life to movies I first saw as an adult. While a few stretch the definition of horror pretty far, they were a huge part of my early love for monster movies, as I'm sure they were for many of you.

20. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

As I wrote recently, Ghostbusters might be the defining movie of my generation. Just about everyone my age has seen it, loves it and can quote it at length. One of the keys to the movie's enduring appeal is that, in addition to being one of the funniest comedies, the horror movie moments are actually quite creepy. A lesser movie might have made the demon dogs haunting Dana Barrett's apartment building or the ghost in the library basement cartoonish and silly; instead, the movie's effects team, led by Richard Edlund (Star Wars, Poltergeist) make ghosts and ghouls as frighteningly believable as in any horror movie. This tension makes the laughs bigger, too - the "He slimed me" line, in particular, is a cathartic laugh the first time one sees the movie, as Slimer's attack plays like straight horror. Even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, as ridiculous as he is, is a legitimately nightmarish idea - run into Mr. Stay Puft in real life, and you, too would be terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

19. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

More sci-fi than horror, They Live still hinges on a horrifying concept - what if Republicans were literally alien conquerors in disguise who have brainwashed us into complacency? It's a premise worthy of a self-published conspiracy tract, and Carpenter doesn't mean for us to take it too seriously. At the same time, the movie is slyly intelligent about the systems that encourage us to be passive consumers. Carpenter has said that he made They Live at a point when he was fed up with Hollywood and opted to work with a low budget in exchange for creative control. The result is one of the purest expressions of Carpenter's cynical, anti-authoritarian worldview, and a movie that has more to say about the evils of capitalism than your average left-leaning documentary. Plus, it has bug-eyed aliens, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and the greatest fight scene in the history of film.

18. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)

The only movie on this list that can usually be found in the family section of video stores (see, kids, they used to have these things called video stores...). It's easy to forget that Gremlins caused quite a stir when it was released for its scarier moments, like the gremlin that is gruesomely killed in a microwave or the scene where the gremlins kill the town's resident mean old lady by hotwiring her stair chair, sending her flying through the evening sky. Gremlins was actually originally written as an R-rated horror movie, before producer Steven Spielberg decided it'd work better as a comedy. There's something hilariously self-lacerating about Spielberg's input, as the movie sees a character even more cute and cuddly than E.T. spawning those horrific green monsters. With its idyllic small-town setting, Gremlins basically starts as the quintessentially Spielbergian film before turning completely anarchic, with director Joe Dante giving his love of Chuck Jones and creature features full reign (and with Gremlins 2, Dante would really get to go nuts). There's a reason that Gremlins sparked enough outrage to lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating - it's a genuinely subversive take on both small-town values and blockbuster entertainment, as much of an act of punk rebellion against good, clean entertainment as any of the R-rated movies on this list.

17. Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)

Like Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice is a horror-comedy that works because it plays the horrific moments straight. The premise of a nice, recently deceased couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) trying to scare away the yuppies (Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones) that bought their house is a hilarious one, but when they try to scare the couple (who cannot yet see them) by ripping off their faces and poking out their eyes, it'd be pretty horrifying in any other context. Beetlejuice also has one of the greatest cinematic takes on the afterlife - it's neither beautiful nor terrifying, just more of the same, endless waiting rooms populated by bureaucrats and middlemen. And of course, an undead con artist who has seen The Exorcist 167 times (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton).

16. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
One of David Cronenberg's most frightening movies, Dead Ringers is also unusual in that it's almost completely free of genre tropes and plot devices. Cronenberg's movies are almost never about the supernatural, but Dead Ringers also features no bodily transformation or mutant children or sex zombies. It's just a movie, loosely based on a true story, about twin gynecologists Eliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons), their destructive relationship with an actress (Genevive Bujold) and their subsequent spiral into drug addiction, insanity and self-destruction. The movie's as tragic as it is disturbing - its scares are derived entirely from witnessing how even the most rational mind can turn against its owner. Irons is amazing in both roles, and though the movie is less violent than most of Cronenberg's films, the sense of psychic violence in the movie is devastating. And Beverly's experiments with new surgical tools for "mutant women" - well, perhaps it's best that this is the rare Cronenberg movie that doesn't go all the way.

15. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
John Carpenter's follow-up to The Fog is a subtler but no less creepy experience than its predecessor. An old-fashioned ghost story about a sea captain and his crew who return from beyond the grave, shrowded in fog and vowing revenge on the descendants of those responsible for their deaths 100 years earlier. Carpenter creates incredible atmosphere out of the ever-present fog, the barely-seen ghosts and the beautiful, haunting northern California locations. I've seen The Fog countless times, and it's still a great pleasure to watch the terrific ensemble case - including Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis - react to the fog's encroaching menace, with most of the cast ending up together in a climax that plays like a ghostly version of Assault on Precinct 13 set in a church. Carpenter chose to reshoot parts of The Fog, adding more gruesome bits and overt scares, after his original rough cut of the film seemed too mild. Those moments are fun, but though The Fog isn't as intense as Halloween, it's just as enjoyable in its own way - it's scariest in the in-between moments, in the drawn-out anticipation of something terrible, and in Carpenter's gorgeous widescreen compositions.

14. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)

While I was always a fan of The Evil Dead - the first time my best friend and I watched it with kids, we nearly passed out from hysterical laughter when the movie abruptly cut to this song accompanying the end credits - I always considered a lesser movie than its two more polished sequels. The "a-ha" moment came when I saw a late-night 35mm screening with an enthusiastic crowd a few years ago, and found myself actually getting freaked out for the first time by a movie I'd already seen several times before. All of the things that signs of a low-budget, handmade production - the sometimes amateurish acting, artlessness of the production design and DIY special effects - actually contribute the movie's unnerving atmosphere. It feels reckless and unpredictable, like you're in the hands of a natural born showman who also might be a bit of a nut. All low-budget horror filmmakers today aspire to make The Evil Dead, but while that magic of all the elements coming together in just the right way might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, it also doesn't hurt to have the kind of insane commitment the filmmakers gave to make The Evil Dead work. The Evil Dead is always what I'll point to when people say that Raimi sucks now, as its DNA can still be found in his big-budget tentpole movies (Rachel Weisz literally turns into a deadite at the end of Oz: The Great and Powerful). His movies don't always work, but he's never stopped being the kid from Michigan who will use every trick at his disposal to entertain us.

13. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

While I'm a fan of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty was my favorite movie of 2012, I also hope that Kathryn Bigelow might return to the kind of sharp-witted genre deconstruction she did so brilliantly in Point Break and, especially, Near Dark. Like The Lost Boys, Near Dark (which was released soon after Schumacher's film) is about a young man (Adrian Pasdar) who falls for a girl (Jenny Wright) and is drawn into her surrogate family of vampires. But while The Lost Boys is a very fun crowd-pleaser, Near Dark is a more ambitious and thematically complex film, using the southwestern locations to position its vampire family as a modern incarnation of Old West outlaws (Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua Miller, all terrific). The mixture of western and Gothic archetypes finds each casting surprising light on the other. It's also a thousand times sexier than Twilight and features an extended scene of the vampires preying on townies at a bar that is one of the best sustained horror setpieces I've ever seen, not to mention Paxton's perfect delivery of the line " It's finger-lickin' good."

12. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)

While David Cronenberg's adaptation of Stephen King's book about a man who wakes from a years-long coma is generally well-regarded, it's overshadowed a bit by the same year's Videodrome and some of the director's other, higher-profile movies. It's a shame, because while The Dead Zone may seem one more conventional on the surface, it's one of the director's very best films and thematically of a piece with the rest of his work. Christopher Walken is great as Johnny Smith, the mild-mannered schoolteacher who discovers he can see into peoples' futures by touching them, which proves to be much more of a curse than a gift. As Johnny discovers his gift's ultimate purpose, the movie builds to an ending that has echoes in several Cronenberg films, from The Fly to Cosmopolis. It's heartbreaking in a way that few horror movies, with a chilly New England atmosphere (though the movie was actually shot in Canada) and at least one gruesome, Cronenbergian death scene involving a pair of scissors. And Martin Sheen's performance as Greg Stillson, a Senatorial candidate whose "aw shucks" persona conceals his very dangerous aspirations, still resonates today - I won't mention any of the seemingly populist but possibly dangerously extreme modern-day politicians who invite comparisons to Stillson, but I'm sure you can think of a few.

11. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)

Fright Night is neither the first nor the last horror movie to feature a protagonist that is basically a surrogate for the horror fans in the audience, but it's probably the best. The movie is a riff on Rear Window, its Jimmy Stuart a horror-loving teen named Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) who suspects that his new neighbor (Chris Sarandon) might be a vampire; he's right, of course, and he tries to enlist the help of local creature features hosts and faded horror star Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall). It's the Vincent character, who laments that the kind of movie that made him a star went out in favor of "demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins," that makes Fright Night really special. It's a movie that goes out of its way to celebrate a style of horror that was anachronistic even in 1985. The movie features state-of-the-art effects (supervised, like Ghostbusters, by Richard Edlund) and plenty of gruesome moments, but at heart it's a valentine to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the Hammer and Amicus classics the filmmakers likely grew up on. And as Jerry Dandrige, the vampire next door, Sarandon is one of my favorite movie vampires. He's everything a good movie vampire should be - charming, seductive, sexually ambiguous, a good dancer, and clearly having a lot of fun being a vampire.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#30-21)

I've been looking forward to writing about this section of the list since I started. Without purposefully assembling it this way, it's a great cross-section of supernatural and real-life horror, classics and more obscure titles (as well as a few that are well-known but deserve more discussion). If I were ever programming a 24-hour horror movie marathon, these ten movies would make a pretty solid lineup.

30. From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986)

Two of the lead actors and most of the crew of Re-Animator reunited the following year for another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, this one loosely based on his short story of the same name. The movie keeps the device of a scientist's assistant recounting his boss' experiments with a device that allows him to see into alternate dimensions. The assistant, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), sees creatures from another world eat his boss' (Ted Sorel) head off in the first scene. Suspected of murder, Crawford returns Dr. McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) and a detective named Bubba (Ken Foree) to show them the dimension-crossing machine. What follows is a terrific showcase for all sorts of weird otherworldly creatures and gory, slimy practical effects. There's also plenty of dark humor and a weird, kinky but strangely fitting subplot about how the machine's energy alters the characters' personalities, particularly Dr. McMichaels, who finds herself suddenly interested in the dead doctor's S&M gear - one wouldn't expect a movie that also features characters' heads being chewed off to be kind of sexy, but there it is. And if S&M isn't your thing, there's also a scene of Foree running and tackling Combs while wearing nothing but a Speedo. You're welcome, ladies.

29. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Perhaps the best movie ever made about the banality of evil, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a difficult movie for me to get into the first time I watched it. It merely follows the title character, loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, for a while as he stops for a while in Chicago, kills some people, briefly has a partner in crime named Otis (Tom Towles), almost has a relationship with Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), then eventually moves on. There's no attempt to explain Henry, and the movie has no sense of closure - it's just one grim chapter in a long, repetitive story. Seeing it again on 35mm years later, the movie became almost unbearably frightening, largely because it withholds any attempt at explaining Henry - he's an unknowable monster, human but completely unrelatable. All three leads are excellent, the deliberately flat visual style works perfectly for the disturbing subject matter, and even though the film isn't particularly gory, one can see why it was given an X rating, as its look at the darkest aspects of human nature are strictly adults-only stuff (though Siskel and Ebert made a persuasive case for why the movie should be available for teens). Although the movie premiered in 1986, it didn't actually get a commercial release in the U.S. until 1990. I included it here, however, because it feels like one of the indispensable horror movies of the decade and completely, frighteningly of its time.

28. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, 1988)

Made soon after the first film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. A lot of this has to do with the film's setting, a hospital psych ward where heroine Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is sent after the events of the first film; when she tells the ward's director, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) about what happened, the doctor, who has long been fascinated with opening the doorway to Hell (and why not), resurrects Kirsty's now-skinless stepmom (Claire Higgins). I've scene the movie several times, and I still have to look away during the aforementioned scene - Hellbound was originally rated X, and the uncut version is still quite extreme 25 years later. Clive Barker, who produced but didn't direct the sequel, has said that the asylum setting was a vehicle for a grand guignol approach to the film, which is evident in the many scenes of gruesome, theatrical bloodletting. The film also expands the Cenobite mythos in fascinating ways, and the climax takes place in their world, which looks like '80s metal album cover art in the best possible way. The series took a quick nosedive after Hellraiser II, but the first two moves remain a satisfyingly cringe-inducing double feature.

27. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

I watched Prince of Darkness this month for the first time in several years, and I had to admit to myself that the things about it that don't work - the two leads (especially Jameson Parker [especially Jameson Parker's moustache]) and a climax that feels too small for the apocalyptic setup of the first two-thirds - hurt the movie more than I remembered. Otherwise, Prince of Darkness is fantastic, ranking with John Carpenter's best work. The plot, about a team of grad students recruited by their professor to investigate a cannister of glowing green evil discovered in the basement of a church, is at once an homage to '60s British sci-fi (Carpenter used the pseudonym "Martin Quartermass" for his screenplay) and supernatural horror. I love the movie's blend of religious and metaphysical horror - it's pulpy but thought-provoking, and the sickly, bug-infested atmosphere Carpenter builds through most of the film is very unnerving. The movie was Carpenter's deliberate return to lower-budget filmmaking after Big Trouble in Little China flopped, and it makes up for what it loses in scale with Carpenter having the freedom to use genre conventions to explore some of his more esoteric interests. It's admittedly a bit uneven, but it's still a blast, perhaps the director's most underrated movie, with extra points for Alice Cooper as an evil bum and Donald Pleasance as an axe-wielding priest.

26. Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

I resisted Michael Mann's adaptation of Manhunter for a long time because, come on, Francis Dolarhyde would never decorate his house that way. For the most part, though, Mann's slick, modernist style makes for an unexpected but fascinating approach to adapting Thomas Harris' novel (featuring Brian Cox's supporting turn as Hannibal Lecter [spelled "Lecktor" here], colder and less charismatic than Anthony Hopkins). Mann's methodical visual style and his obsessive focus on process is a match for his protagonist, FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson), whose obsessive attention to detail and ability to get inside a serial killer's head make him the perfect person to catch the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan, whose terrific performance I wrote about two Halloweens ago), who is methodically killing off families in different parts of the country with no apparent connection. Many thrillers have been made that explore a link between the killer and his pursuer, but few are as compelling as Manhunter, possibly because it's less interested than the usual cliche of the detective being as messed up as the culprit as it is with the idea that both men are masters of their chosen trades (a theme Mann would explore again in Heat). And, since it's Mann, it's a technically astounding film, the cinematography, editing, art direction and, especially, sound design working in concert to create a stark, menacing atmosphere. And this is also a given for a Mann film, but yeah, the soundtrack is terrific.

25. Parents (Bob Balaban, 1989)

The most underrated movie on this list, Parents is a great pitch-black comedy about a boy (Bryan Madorsky) growing up in '50s suburbia who begins to suspect there's something odd about the meat his parents (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) serve with dinner every night. When he asks them what their dinner, which they always identify as "leftovers," was before it was left over, they chuckle and respond, "Leftovers to be!" Parents feels a lot like early Tim Burton, having a lot of fun with the kitschy period production design, and Quaid and Hurt play their roles like sinister versions of the Cleavers. But it's also surprisingly unnerving - it's basically a movie about the loss of innocence we all experience the first time we think about where the food on our plate comes from, and the unsettling experience of spying on your parents doing the things they do when they think you're not around. Balaban takes the same understated approach to directing that he does to acting, which works to wonderfully creepy effect. Parents has never gotten a proper R1 DVD release and barely airs on TV, so it's woefully underseen. I haven't actually seen it in over ten years, so the fact that I can recall specific images and lines of dialogue speaks well of the movie's impact.

24. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Videodrome remians incredibly popular, almost a touchstone movie, among dudes my age. And while it is indeed a great movie, I can't help wondering why it's this one, out of all the great movies Cronenberg has made, that has come to define him as a filmmaker. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the way that, by the nature of the subject matter and characters, the movie's ideas are explicitly delivered in the dialogue (though I do think people can confuse, say, Brian O'Blivion's thesis statements with Cronenberg's). For me, though, the film's ruminations on media, technology, sex and ideology are most interestingly expressed in the hallucinatory images. Perhaps I'm fundamentally shallow, because I'll listen to a whole monologue about the television of the mind's eye, but if you just show me James Woods having sex with a TV, I've got it. On the other hand, that I respond more strongly to the story told by the images than the words, when for most people it's the other way around, sort of proves the movie's point about the potency of ideas expressed through a perfectly provocative image. Videodrome is every bit as trippy as Altered States, but it's a little better than Altered States because, while that movie is filled with fascinating but ultimately incoherent ideas, the ideas Videodrome expresses through its images are as potent as the images themselves. As one of the characters in the movie says, it's dangerous because it has a philosophy.

23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987)

My internal dialogue when putting the list ranking together:

"Andrew, you can't put Dream Warriors ahead of Videodrome."

"But I love Dream Warriors! Best characters in the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series, funny without getting too schticky, great dream sequences - 'Welcome to prime time, bitch!' - awesome pre-CGI effects - it has just about everything I love about the genre!"

"Andrew, Videodrome is smart. It's an objectively better movie. They'll know you're a dum dum, Andrew. Remember how they mocked you on Tom Sutpen's Facebook page? You're destroying your own credibility."

"But but but but THE WIZARD MASTER!"

"I've done all I can here."

"Woohoo! Dream Warriors 4eva! Dokken power!"

22. Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

My favorite moment in Dressed to Kill happens right after the famous elevator scene, as Nancy Allen's character Liz picks up a murder weapon and is mistaken by a freaked out cleaning lady for the killer. It's the moment when we realize the movie is going to focus on a completely different character and subject than we thought. It's a riff on a similar moment in Psycho, of course, as is most of Dressed to Kill - there's that great moment in Psycho, after the shower scene, when the camera reorients us with the newspaper concealing the money that we thought was so important a minute earlier. The moment in Dressed to Kill, though, one-ups Hitchcock - in the earlier movie it's a pause, but here, the momentum never stops. As Pino Donaggio's shrieking score kicks back in and the camera dollies up the hallway, I never feel to crack up and feel a strange sense of exhilaration at De Palma's audacity.

And while Psycho is the better movie, De Palma's post-murder second half is actually more interesting. At the very least, Allen's hooker/stock trader is more entertaining than Vera Miles, and if Allen's performance doesn't transcend the "tough but with a heart of gold" template, she's at least strong and empathetic (same goes for Allen in Blow Out, but more so). And the older I get, the more I find the oddly innocent (or is it?) teenage fantasy of Keith Gordon's junior detective looking after Allen strangely endearing. Dressed to Kill is one of De Palma's best movies, and maybe his funniest (I love the over-the-shoulder reaction shots of the woman in the restaurant listening to Allen explain a sex change operation to Gordon). Also, everything that's currently much discussed in gender-oriented culture studies about cisgenderism, rape culture, slut shaming, etc. is explored brilliantly and at length by De Palma; it's hip about these things in a way that puts most contemporary, serious-minded movies to shame.

21. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)

It says a lot about Poltergeist that, while I saw a lot of age-inappropriate stuff as a young kid, I was too freaked out to make it through this PG-rated Spielberg production until I was older. For a movie as Spielbergian as any that he (officially) directed, it has its share of dark and even sadistic moments that remind both of Spielberg's gifted mean streak and of the darker sensibility that Tobe Hooper brought to the movie. Any discussion of Poltergeist always comes back around to speculation over who's the movie's true auteur - I'll just say that, whether moments like the face-ripping scene were Hooper's idea, or if it's just that Hooper's directorial credit freed up Spielberg (who has a co-writing credit) to go for the gross-out, those moments still work like gangbusters. I like to think that both men brought out the best in each other, with Hooper bringing his merciless ability to scare to a bigger canvas (aided by a team of A-list technicians) and Spielberg indulging his alternate universe existence as an expert schlockmeister (I love it when he feels free to do this - see also Temple of Doom, the Amblin-produced Gremlins movies and the last 30 minutes of The Lost World). Whoever deserves authorial credit, Poltergeist is as great as any big-budget horror movie will ever be, with as much style, atmosphere and pure craftsmanship as every wannabe blockbuster should aspire to.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#40-31)

This part of the list includes the first appearances of two horror icons and a few other cult classics and favorites among horror fans, and it's arguably more challenging to write about the genre's heavy hitters then some of the more niche-y titles I've covered so far. I can remember first renting (and, in some cases, repeatedly renting) a few of these movies when I was very young, or making sure to catch them whenever they ran on TV; these were the building blocks of my love of horror, as I assume they were for many fellow horror fans. We've lived with these movies for most of our lives, and you don't need me to tell me why they're great. The temptation is to be like Chris Farley on the sketches on SNL where he interviews celebrities - "Remember that part in Child's Play when the mom realizes Chucky doesn't have any batteries, and she's trying to make him talk, so she tells him she's going to throw him in the fireplace if he doesn't say something, and he calls her a dirty slut? That was awesome." I'll try to do a bit better than that.

40. Night of the Creeps (Fred Dekker, 1986)

Until Night of the Creeps finally made its DVD debut a few years ago, it was one of those long out-of-print movies that horror fans would bond over their shared memories of. You'd ask someone if they remembered a movie with alien slugs and Tom Atkins saying "It's Miller time" as he blows one of the slugs away, and they'd generally remember and be happy to have been reminded. The Monster Squad, Fred Dekker's second movie, had a similar reputation, but as it was basically a kids movie (and it seemed to run all the time on cable back in the late '80s), it was a little less forgotten. With Night of the Creeps, if someone had an old VHS copy, it immediately became must-see viewing, one of those movies that even friends who don't usually go for horror would be quoting in casual conversation after watching it. Now that it's readily available, it's a relief to see the movie holds up - Slither famously owes a lot to Night of the Creeps, and Slither is very good, but it can't match the earlier movie's endearingly offbeat tone - it's strangely lighthearded for a movie about alien slugs that control the minds of their human hosts. It's enjoyably icky, less interested in grotesque body horror than in playing around with '50s B-movie staples (even throwing a variation on the urban legend about a killer on lover's lane, because why not). And Tom Atkins, who is, of course, great in so many genre movies (whether the movie is good or not), might do his best work here. As a cynical Phillip Marlowe-esque gumshoe seemingly transported in from another time to investigate the alien menace, Atkins is hilarious and, at points, even a little bit affecting. He makes me hope that, someday, I'll be man enough to answer the phone with "Thrill me" instead of "Hello."

39. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)

John Carpenter is quick to dismiss Christine as one of his lesser movies in interviews; he made it after The Thing flopped, and he's been frank about the fact that he was less motivated by love for the material than the chance to direct a likely hit and rehabilitate his career. It's a shame he feels that way, because Christine certainly doesn't feel like a phoned-in movie. It takes a premise that could have been laughable onscreen - a supernatural car and the teenage boy who loves her - and makes it work, largely thanks to the lead performance by Keith Gordon, who does a great job of selling his character's transformation from a bullied nerd to a cocky, arrogant jerk who is completely under Christine's spell. The movie actually cuts out the most horror movie-friendly aspect of King's book, the rotting ghost of Christine's previous owner sitting in the back seat, but it translates King's fun satire on the teenage male fetishization of cool cars intact. Shot in gorgeous anamorphic widescreen, the movie contains some of Carpenter's most elegant visual compositions, having the red Plymouth Fury occupy the distant background of the frame like Michael Myers as she stalks her prey. And the scenes of a near-destroyed Christine healing herself, achieved largely with reverse photography, are some of the niftiest examples of pre-CGI effects trickery. Christine might not be a personal movie for Carpenter, but it's still distinctly and enjoyably his.

38. Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988)

I've never been creeped out by dolls, so Child's Play never traumatized me the way it did for many people my age who saw it as kids. However, even a non-pediophobe like me can have a lot of fun with the first entry in the long-running series. It's fun to revisit now and remember that much of the first film plays on the ambiguity of whether the doll is possessed or young Andy is mentally ill and blaming the murder's he's committing on Chucky. There had been killer doll movies before, which makes it more impressive that Child's Play managed to become the definitive one, largely thanks to Brad Dourif's excellent vocal performance as Chucky.

It's also the first horror series I shared with my five-year-old son, who is extremely interested in so many of the scary movies on the shelves that he's not quite old enough to see yet (even if I really want to let him). I started with Child's Play 2, which is a little milder, then moved on to the first; even I was surprised that Tommy never got freaked out or had a nightmare about Chucky. For a while, he even carried our Chucky doll everywhere with him and slept with it at night. I put off the gorier Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky for a long time, then let him watch them with his eyes closed during the R-rated bits; he soon started ignoring me and enjoyed those parts too. He likes pretending to do the voodoo curse on his action figures, and his older sister is a big fan of Jennifer Tilly. Maybe I should be concerned, but what I actually feel is pride. Although Tom did tell me Curse of Chucky looks too scary, and he'll watch it when he's six.

37. Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

One of Argento's best giallos is about a killer who patterns his murders after the work of a famous mystery author (Anthony Franciosca). The writer dismisses the idea, in an interview early in the film, that art can inspire real-life violence; Argento goes on to have a lot of fun exploring the possibility that it could, deliberately toying with his detractors (as with most of his films, Argento uses his hands as the gloved hands of the unseen killer). The movie contains some of the most technically astounding shots in Argento's filmography, particularly a complex tracking shot, several minutes long, that moves up, over and down the other side of an apartment building - it's Argento showing off and having a lot of fun doing it. Shot by frequent collaborator Luciano Tovoli, the entire movie avoids shadows and expressionistic lighting in favor of brilliantly lit sets and locations, the copious bloodletting shot in vivid detail (Tenebre was originally one of the UK's banned "video nasties," which lumped in crude exploitation with more artistically ambitious films). Barely theatrically released in the U.S. (heavily cut and retitled Unsane), it's gained a deserved cult following over the years; while most of Argento's movies value style and visceral effect over a coherent plot, Tenebre is actually a solid whodunit, with a twist that actually works. Plus, it has a typically terrific Goblin soundtrack.

36. The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

One of the most unusual takes on the werewolf mythos, The Company of Wolves isn't for everyone - I actually know someone who considers it the worst movie he's ever seen. The film, one of Neil Jordan's first, doesn't satisfy the audience's expectations for what a werewolf movie should be, avoiding big scares or state-of-the-art transformation sequences. Instead, Jordan and co-writer Angela Carter (loosely adapting her short story of the same title) use the framing device of a present-day adolescent girl's (Sarah Patterson) dreams to explore fairy tale archetypes and their subtextual meanings, particularly the underlying fear and attraction of budding female sexuality that drives Little Red Riding Hood. The movie returns repeatedly to Charles Perrault's moral "Beware of charming strangers," with stories of women (and a man, in one case) seduced by men (played by Terence Stamp and Stephen Rea, among others) who ultimately reveal their monstrous true selves. The final story, about a female werewolf, finds sympathy for the beast, and the film ends with a sense of ambivalence towards its monsters. Featuring beautiful art direction and striking makeup effects, The Company of Wolves is an uncommonly cerebral horror movie, challenging but ultimately rewarding. Jordan would continue to explore fairy-tale logic in both his horror and other films, including Interview with the Vampire, In Dreams and Ondine, but never more successfully than in The Company of Wolves.

35. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

If the Clive Barker-helmed remake of Hellraiser becomes a reality and remains close to the plot of the original, I hope it takes more time to examine the relationship between brothers Larry and Frank. There's the slightest suggestion, here and there in the movie, that Larry is the masochist to Frank's sadist and is as screwed up as his brother in his own way. Whether it's because of the writing or Andrew Robinson's shaky performance as Larry (though he's a lot better as Frank), the idea of their family home as depraved from the start is a fascinatingly thorny one that, hopefully, will be explored in more depth.

Even if the plot does deviate from the original, I hope Barker hasn't forgotten that, as fearsome and incredible as the Cenobites are, it's the horrible things the human characters get off on doing to each other that makes the original Hellraiser so effective. Pinhead and his associates work best when, like the shark in Jaws, their appearances are so brief and striking that we're still thinking about them when they're offscreen. When I was a kid, as much as I loved horror movies, I could never bring myself to rent Hellraiser because the cover art (the same as the poster) was way too frightening to me. So I was surprised when I caught up with the movie as a teen and discovered that Pinhead is, arguably, not even the villain of the first film. Barker described Pinhead as the administrator of a hospital made up entirely of operating theaters, and that's exactly right - he's just doing his job, going where he's been called and giving people what they've asked for, and he's the rare horror movie monster that is willing to negotiate. This is why I lost interest after Part III, where Pinhead is cackling like Freddy as he murders a bunch of people - he's scariest when he's dispassionate, a representative for a terrible place that, nonetheless, only comes calling when someone makes an inquiry. That the real horror of Hellraiser is what it says about the darker aspects of human desire goes a long way to explain why, whatever flaws the movie might have as a result of Barker's first shot at directing or budgetary limitations (though I'm generally forgiving of those), it's still a very frightening film.

34. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985)

I was glad that Jason Zinoman's Shock Value, a sort of Easy Riders Raging Bulls for the great horror directors of the '70s, devoted a lot of space to Dan O'Bannon, an often-forgotten but crucial figure in the narrative of those filmmakers. O'Bannon co-wrote and was involved in almost every aspect of the production of Dark Star, John Carpenter's first feature; a few years later, after writing for Heavy Metal and working on Jodorowsky's never-filmed adaptation of Dune, O'Bannon co-wrote Alien with Ron Shusett, coming up with the idea for the chestburster because of his struggles with Crohn's disease (he eventually passed away from the disease in 2009). O'Bannon only directed two movies, but the first was the classic horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead. A riff on Night of the Living Dead, produced by that movie's co-writer, O'Bannons film starts with the idea that a few barrels the chemical that created that movie's walking dead have been sitting, forgotten in the basement of a medical supply center for two decades. The movie has a lot of fun with pretending Romero's film was a true story, but it's not a parody - instead, it's equal parts funny and scary, with inventive undead effects (particularly the rapidly rotting Tarman, who I wrote about last year), as many jabs as punk culture as Repo Man (which allows for a great soundtrack) and O'Bannon's deadpan, nihilistic sense of humor.

It was also the film that was single-handedly responsible for popularizing the idea that zombies prefer to eat brains - any time someone pretends to be a zombie and exclaims "Braaaains!", they're referencing The Return of the Living Dead whether they know it or not. I knew a guy who was seriously angry at this movie for spreading the misconception that zombies only eat brains, as though zombies were real and could be targets of misrepresentation. He was a very annoying person, so his irritation with The Return of the Living Dead makes me love the movie a little bit more.

33. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)

The other great 1985 horror-comedy is Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, a very loose adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "Herbert West - Reanimator." It's also considerably darker than The Return of the Living Dead - I saw a 35mm screening earlier this year and was struck by how, as funny as it is, it's pretty grim stuff, as unflinching about the physical reality of mortality and decay as Fulci or Romero. Its humor comes from Herbert West's completely single-minded focusing on achieving his goal of reversing death, as well as his complete lack of social skills - as the movie grows more and more grotesque, Jeffrey Combs's deadpan determination grows increasingly hysterical. The movie also makes the most of its low-budget splatter effects, culminating in the infamous "giving head" scene that achieves a sort of twisted brilliance. We throw around the term "brave" liberally when discussing onscreen performances, but Barbara Crampton in Re-Animator truly earns it.

32. The Vanishing (George Sluzier, 1988)

I have to admit that I've always had a slight skepticism about The Vanishing's greatness, which has always struck me as a bit mechanistic. Perhaps this is unfair, but a lot of this has to do with its horrible remake, which Sluzier also directed, willingly changing the original's famously bleak ending at the studio's request - if he considers the most famous aspect of the original movie malleable, than how personal or profound an artistic statement was it in the first place? That said, there's no denying that The Vanishing is a brilliantly nerve-racking experience. About a man (Gene Bervoets) desperately searching for his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege), who went missing when the two stopped at a gas station, The Vanishing is unusual in that it introduces us to her abductor (Bernard-Pierre Donnardieu) early in the film but waits much longer to reveal what happened to her. The most disturbing aspect of The Vanishing is that the kidnapper is completely unassuming, even banal, as are his motives. And whether the ending is overcalculated or not, it sure is a hell of a gut punch.

31. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Altered States is one of the movies on this list that stretches the definition of a horror movie - it doesn't play like one, except for the sequence where William Hurt transforms into a primitive man and runs amok. It's an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's book, loosely based on Dr. John Lily's real-life experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation in the hopes of experiencing a pre-human consciousness. It's heady stuff, and though Chayefsky wrote the script, he opted to use a pseudonym because of his displeasure with Ken Russell's direction. Russell's film is faithful to the screenplay (he was contractually obligated), but he had the actors race through the metaphysical dialogue at a breakneck pace, favoring the opportunity to pack the film with his trademark hallucinatory images. Filled with bodily horror (transformation effects courtesy of Dick Smith) and mind-boggling hallucination sequences (accompanied by still-amazing sound design) that seemingly depict heaven, hell, nothingness and everything in between, Altered States plays like a stoned remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If that doesn't qualify as horror, I don't know what does.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Top 10: '80s Horror! (#50-41)

We're halfway through the list with a week to go until Halloween, meaning I'm going to be racing to finish on time. It's funny how I started this as a less time-consuming project with the intention of writing a few sentences for each film. I guess once you get me started talking about, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 or The Lost Boys, it's hard for me to stop.

Anyway, on to the next ten:

50. Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983)

Stephen King mentions Cujo as often as The Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me when asked to name his favorite adaptations of his work. This seems odd at first, both because Cujo isn't a particular fan favorite and because this is coming from the guy who insists that Kubrick's The Shining sucks. But I can understand King's affection for Cujo, a brutally efficient and unpretentious adaptation of one of his darker books (though, in opting not to kill a major character, the movie's considerably less grim). If the rabid St. Bernard in the book could be read as either a metaphorical manifestation of familial angst or a literal reincarnation of The Dead Zone's Frank Dodd, in the movie he's as much a force of nature as the shark in Jaws. The filmmakers do a great job of making a wet dog fearsome, which can't have been easy in the pre-CGI days, as well as getting the maximum claustrophobic effect out of the Ford Pinto that Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her son Tad (Danny Pintauro) are trapped in for much of the film's second half. Wallace's believably terrified, desperate performance is a huge part of the film's effectiveness is well. Cujo is essentially a subtext-free scare delivery machine, but when it's done this well, sometimes that's more than enough.

49. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)

A childhood favorite for many of us that actually holds up. It's funny how, when I was a kid, The Monster Squad seemed like an epic-scale movie, only to discover as an adult that it's 80 minutes long, modestly budgeted and briskly paced. Such is the way a movie like this can play on a kid's imagination. It's basically The Goonies with monsters, but unlike The Goonies, it's enjoyable for people who didn't see it when they were five years old. It helps that the kids in The Monster Squad aren't constantly talking over each other, but I think a lot of it has to do with the offbeat details that director Fred Dekker and co-writer Shane Black sprinkle into the film. Dracula calls a four-year-old girl a "bitch," Frankenstein's monster becomes an E.T.-like friend to the kids (with Tom Noonan giving a typically committed performance), and there's an out-of-nowhere but weirdly fitting reference to the Holocaust. I also love how straightfaced and weirdly credible the movie's approach to the concept of kids fighting an all-star team of monsters is - when the main character assembles the others and basically says "Guys, here's the deal. Dracula's back, and we've got to stop him," you believe the kid. Stan Winston's creature effects and the gorgeous scope cinematography also help a great deal - Dekker and his crew never condescend to their subject, making a potential B-movie feel like an A-movie. If you've been reading my list so far, you probably don't need me to tell you why The Monster Squad is awesome; if you haven't seen it, it's ideal Halloween viewing, a great Valentine to any horror-loving kid (or kid at heart).

48. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Possibly the most disturbing movie on this list, one that I wasn't actually sure if I liked or not for a long time after seeing it. Possession is about a man (Sam Neill) who learns that his wife (Isabelle Adjani) has abruptly fallen out of love with him and is abandoning him and their son. Trying to find out what happened, he first discovers that she had an affair with another man, then discovers her ongoing affair with a slimy, tentacled creature (designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who would next create the titular character in E.T.) who lives in a loft where she brings other men for the creature to feed on. Subtract the fact that this movie involves Isabelle Adjani having sex with an octopus monster, and it's still very unsettling, from the bleak Cold War-era Berlin locations to Adjani's frightening, full-tilt performance to the horrifying scene where her character experiences a sort of alien miscarriage in a subway station. Now add on top of that the fact that this movie features ISABELLE ADJANI HAVING SEX WITH AN OCTOPUS MONSTER. There's more involving doubles and identity shifts, and the movie gets more and more frighteningly absurd as it reaches its climax. Zulawski wrote the movie during a very painful divorce, and this movie does touch a nerve in how it uses genre tropes to depict the experience of realizing you do not really know the person you thought you knew best. It's abrasive and even alienating at points, but for the brave soul who sticks with it, it's a rewarding experience.

47. Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin, 1981)

I first saw Strange Behavior as the second half of a double bill, with Dawn of the Dead, at the Harvard Film Archive. I knew almost nothing about the movie, which turned out to be a great way to experience it. What starts as a slasher, with a masked killer knocking off kids in a small town, turns into bizarro sci-fi/horror involving secret experiments and mind control. It's a hybrid of '80s and older horror movie tropes, and it works wonderfully. First-time director Michael Loughlin and co-writer Bill Condon achieve a very unique tone - it's funny without ever veering completely into horror-comedy, made funnier because everyone involved keeps a straight face. That the movie was shot in New Zealand but with a mostly American cast gives it a surreal quality, like a dream of small town America, as does the typically hypnotic Tangerine Dream score. And how can I not love a movie that makes such great use of Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes"?

46. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)

I read a book a few years ago, the name of which escapes me now, which was a collection of essays about horror movies by various prolific writers in the genre. One thing that stood out was that several different writers cited Jacques Tourneur's Cat People as a high point of the genre, discussing the bus scene and the swimming pool scene at length. Most of these writers slammed Paul Schrader's remake for showing what Tourneur and Val Lewton suggested, referring to the old adage that, in a horror movie, what you don't see is more frightening than what you do see. Putting aside the excellence of the original Cat People and the fact that the aformentioned adage is often true, this traditionalist bias has always irked me, as if there were one correct way to make a horror movie (or any kind of movie). It's true that Schrader's Cat People isn't much interested in the kind of subtle scares that made the original work, but what it loses in subtlety, it makes up for in pure batshit insanity. This is a movie where Nastassja Kinski periodically wanders through what appears to be a prog rock album cover depicting a world ruled by leopards, impeccably designed and accompanied by a Giorgio Moroder score. Kinski is a descendant of these leopards who, she discovers, must mate with her brother (Malcolm McDowell) in order to further the race. Kinski would rather sleep with a zoologist played by John Heard, but risks turning into a leopard and ripping him to pieces if she does. As this is directed by Paul Schrader, it's all caked in sex, sleaze, cocaine and Calvinist guilt, with lots of gratuitous nudity and an S&M-tinged ending that is both enjoyably kinky and extremely problematic in what it seems to be saying about post-women's movement gender roles. The whole movie's problematic, but in a good (or at least extremely entertaining) way; Tourneur's film remains a masterpiece, but Schrader's reminds us that there's a lot to be gained by showing everything. And, of course, it gave us this.

45. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986)

My best friend and I rented The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 the day after we'd both watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time, and we both agreed that it was pretty terrible. I imagine (and the letters to the editor pages of late-1986 issues of Fangoria back this up) that it must have been alienating and disappointing to most fans of the original when it was released. Instead of the first film's unbearable tension and snuff film-like atmosphere is a dark comedy about the perils of the small businessman that trades horrifying implied violence for cartoonish amounts of gore. When I watched it again knowing what to expect, however, I got a huge kick out of it and realized why Hooper decided to go in that direction. There was no point in trying to replicate the intensity of the first film, as he was never going to match the shock of the new, so why not cast Dennis Hopper as a chainsaw-wielding Texas Ranger and Bill Mosely as Leatherface's brother, who has a partly exposed steel plate in his head and rants about opening a theme park called Namland? If that doesn't amuse you, stay far away from TCM2, because there's a lot more of that. It's also surprisingly smart and ahead of its time in its understanding of the sexual politics of slasher movies. There's a scene in this that is the likely origin of the line "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw" in Heathers, a scene that I laughed at in disbelief when I saw it but, upon revisiting it, realized the laughs were a lot more deliberate and pointed than I first realized. And I know this is a familiar refrain at this point, but the soundtrack kicks ass.

44. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)

1981 produced two great werewolf movies (possibly three - I barely remember seeing Wolfen, but it has its fans). We'll get to the other one eventually, but while The Howling is, for me, the less scary of the two, there's still plenty to love about it. Based on Gary Brandner's novel about a small town populated by werewolves, John Sayles' screenplay turns the town into a colony for devotees of a self-help guru who urges his patients to overcome repression; using lycanthropy as a substitute for Me Generation narcissism allows Sayles to score some satirical points, as does making the lead character a news anchor (Dee Wallace) traumatized while going undercover on a sensationalistic story. The Howling, like most of Dante's films, is peppered with affectionate references to classic horror, and some of the best gags are as indebted to Chuck Jones as they are to Hammer Studios. But it's also the one straight horror film of Dante's, and a quite frightening one, largely thanks to Rob Bottin's terrific makeup effects. And Wallace is as good here as in Cujo - it's fitting that she mostly appears in supporting roles in movies by the next generation of horror filmmakers these days, as she's one of the best actresses in the genre. The sequels are varying degrees of awful, but the original remains terrific.

43. The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)

It's a hoot imagining John Locke as the murderous stepfather in Joseph Ruben's original, but even if you've never seen Lost, Terry O'Quinn is terrific here, switching from Ward Cleaver-esque geniality to homicidal rage and back again at the drop of a hat. The opening scene is masterpiece of subtly mounting dread, as we see O'Quinn calmly preparing for his day; as he goes about his house, we see details that suggest something horrible has happened until, finally the camera pans over to the bodies of the family he's murdered. This is the stepfather, who reappears as "Jerry Blake" and marries a widow with a teenage daughter, who, for reasons that remain unexplained, has changed his identity and remarried several times, attempting to create a picture-perfect family, then killing them all and starting over when reality intrudes on his ideal. He's the perfect '80s villain, a guy who will murder in the name of family values, and The Stepfather is a modest but very successful domestic horror movie. I chuckled when I remembered that it was actually my dad, who doesn't usually like horror movies, who insisted I needed to see this one when I was a kid, saying it was great. He also loves The Great Santini, insisted I watch it with him and cracked up during the scene where Robert Duvall throws a basketball at his son's head. I hope he was purposefully fucking with me, because that makes me love the old man more.

42. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

The Funhouse is perhaps the most classically made of all the slashers, a movie about teens being picked off by a masked (and deformed, in this case) madmen that, at points, feels old-fashioned in the best way. There's the extended buildup, as the four teen characters smoke pot and wander around the attractions (including the terrific William Finley as a magician), that perfectly captures all the ways that travelling carnivals are at once fun and unnervingly shifty, creating a sense of both nostalgia and dread (it'd make a terrific double bill with Something Wicked This Way Comes). When the teens decide to hide in the funhouse for the night and are subsequently stalked by the killer, Hooper and his crew get as much atmosphere and production value out of the cardboard ghouls and garish lighting of their set as possible. While The Funhouse isn't as self-reflexive as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, it's very smart about the fundamental appeal of being frightened.

41. Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)

The saga of a young man that keeps his horribly deformed Siamese twin in a big basket as they set out to murder the doctors responsible for separating them is one of the most beloved low-budget horror movies of its era, and for good reason. It's a perfect mix of dark humor and over-the-top gore, the relationship between Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his brother Belial is strangely credible, and it's the rare horror movie that feels like a true original. But am I the only one who finds Belial kind of adorable? Maybe it's the combination of puppetry and stop motion effects that makes the little guy endearing, or maybe it's the sympathetic nature of his motives - the poor guy just wants to be closer to his brother. Either way, whenever I watch this scene, in addition to laughing until I'm out of breath, I just want to give Belial a hug.