To celebrate my favorite holiday, I'm taking part in a Halloween movie-review collaboration. My charming and worthy co-reviewers' pieces can be found here:FreshmakerNora Charles
The deal: we agreed upon five "best of all time" movies, which we each wrote a short review of. Then, each of us picked a "dark horse," a movie that maybe didn't quite deserve Top 5 status but which we find irresistible for one reason or another, as a basis for a longer essay. Some of us (ahem) could not resist the urge to review the other participants' dark horses, because we just can't think of a better way to spend Halloween weekend than watching lots of horror movies.
So, the reviews:
THE TOP FIVEThe Haunting
Today's curiously unsatisfying gorefests could take a lesson or two from this 1963 chiller, which will keep you up at night without a drop of blood or a single evisceration in sight. Shy, lonely Eleanor, in a bid to gain independence from her domineering mother, agrees to take part in the paranormal investigation of Hill House led by one Dr. Markway. Unfortunately, Eleanor's problems are just beginning. The house proves to be a hotbed of increasingly threatening supernatural activity. Is whatever inhabits Hill House singling Eleanor out? Or are her psychological problems undergoing a disturbing and dangerous escalation?The Haunting
is a beautifully scary film. Its subtlety and restraint create an atmosphere of slowly increasing dread, as tiny clues to the house's history are revealed one by one, leaving the viewer mostly to the mercy of his or her own imagination. This is one movie that knows the scariest thing is often what isn’t shown -- I defy you to watch Eleanor and Theodora's terrifying night together, or the deliciously creepy revelation afterward, without shuddering, even though nary a CGI monster can be found.The Exorcist
I've been told that, as a heathen, I can't possibly understand how scary The Exorcist
really is. If that's true? I think I'm glad. I'm not sure I could take it. If you ask me, though, the nice thing about the movie is that you don’t have to have a big personal fear of demonic possession to find it utterly terrifying -- what the movie does, brilliantly, is to ask: What if the very worst, the dark side of everything you believe in -- what if that all turns out to be true?
Beginning with, ahem, devilish innocence (a weird Ouija board experience here, a little pee on the floor there), The Exorcist
wastes no time ratcheting up the grotesquerie with the scenes you're familiar with: spinning heads, pea soup, and so on. But what makes the movie so much more effective than your average splatterfest is the underlying feeling of despair and darkness, as the main characters come to believe that they're facing real evil -- that all is most certainly not right with the world, and that they alone have to face something much bigger, meaner and scarier than they are prepared to accept. That isolation and the desperate, fate-of-the-world odds give the movie weight that outlasts even the Guignol theatrics that made it famous.Night of the Living Dead
"Yeah, they’re dead. They’re…all messed up." The first twenty minutes of George Romero's genre-making zombie flick play like a 50s B-movie throwback, with busted radios, clunky exposition, and damsels losing their shoes right and left. But once the hapless Barbara enters the house that seems, at first, to offer safety, it becomes clear that Romero plans to take the atomic-monster movie and run with it like a marathon champ. As a small group of survivors fight to stay alive, the movie's drive-in trappings fall away to reveal its real personality: pessimistic, unrelenting and almost unbearably dark.
Although I have a soft spot for Romero's most recent zombie epic, Land of the Dead,
the original is still depressingly relevant in its outlook on human fear, and how it can be our undoing. From the weaselly Mr. Cooper, who clings to the imaginary safety of the house at all costs, to the hero who commits an act of brutality in one fraught moment, to the flippant, ignorant enforcers who gleefully go after the bad guys, never knowing that they've nailed a few good guys along the way, every character in the film faces his or her own fear and, in the end, comes up short. The fact that Romero is able to pack this moral into a movie that's still scary and entertaining is no mean feat, as ranks of lightweight ripoffs and dour, message-laden snore-fests since can attest.The ShiningThe Shining
is, of course, a gloriously scary film, with a fantastic performance by Jack Nicholson, by turns menacing, bewildered, terrified and monstrous as he gives in to the ghostly influence of the evil Overlook Hotel. It's also one of the few films to succeed in being scary and damn funny at the same time. Upon repeated viewings, a subtle thread of dark humor emerges, aided of course by Nicholson's crazed "do you believe this shit?" leer. Like Psycho
(possibly the only other movie I'd put on the really scary AND really funny list), The Shining
manages to remind you constantly that it's just doing this to freak you out, and...still freak you out, somehow. I can't believe that the hilariously overwrought "Tuesday" title card was just an accident, or that Kubrick didn't see the comic potential of Shelley Duvall's numerous snivelly breakdowns. Instead of detracting from the horror, this detached, sardonic viewpoint adds to the sense of depravity and perversion, as if we are viewing the events not just through Jack, Wendy, and Danny, but through the eyes of the Overlook itself, ancient, jaded, and very very evil.Halloween
27 years ago, Halloween
rampaged through theaters and kicked off a horror Golden Age in the United States. Since then, we've seen seven sequels and numberless ripoffs. Michael Meyers has become an A-lister, a sort of American Godzilla who may have started out as a monster, but is now the one, let's face it, we’re rooting for.
It's too easy to forget why
the movie is so famous. I’ve watched it a million times before, of course, but a couple of years ago I had a chance to see it properly, in a darkened theater, and damned if it didn't have me as jumpy as any virginal Final Girl. I realized that what’s great about Halloween
is not the sex and gore that the slasher film is famous for, but the relentless suspense which, if you give it half a chance, will have you on the edge of your seat during Halloween's
agonizing final minutes.
In his first outing, Michael Meyers is a perfectly terrifying figure of evil. Later sequels, which started the tradition of the slasher franchise with extensive backstory, sell him short: it’s far more disturbing that this blank-faced killing machine…just is, for no particular reason. That's way scarier than even the most horrific origin tale, because there's no moral, no lesson to be learned, except maybe that "the Boogeyman is real."
THE DARK HORSESSuspiria
(Nora Charles' pick)
Dario Argento is deservedly beloved for serving up some of the most beautiful, grotesque nightmares around, and if he sacrifices the odd plot nitpick here and there in service of his Vision, well, a great vision it is, and we can forgive him. In Suspiria,
however, he nails the details. Pretty Suzy Bannion travels overseas to a funny little German ballet academy and finds herself starring in a morbid fairy tale, as students start disappearing, the headmistress seems to be taking an odd interest in her nutrition plan, and maggots make an unforgettable appearance in the student sleeping quarters.
You kind of have to take Argento movies as they are -- his characters are always stylized, and even at his most focused he's more into atmosphere than plot complexities. But if you approach Suspiria more as an amusement-park ride than as realism, you're in for a treat.Versus
The age-old storytelling themes of reincarnation, honor and the nature of good and evil are...well, not all that important to your enjoyment of this movie, really, although they do lend a fantastic backdrop to this, simply the rootinest, tootinest, samurai/zombie/western/prison-break/yakuza movie ever filmed.
We are introduced to a place called the Forest of Resurrection via ancient samurai-vs.-multiple zombie throwdown. Back in the present day, two escaped prisoners get into a tiff with some gangsters, ending in slickly-choreographed gunplay. Unfortunately, the yakuza lose a little composure, and a lot of limbs, when they discover that the area they’ve been using to dump bodies is, of course, the aforementioned Forest. Suddenly, vanquished enemies are not so vanquished, very dead, and extremely cranky. Too bad the gangsters already got on the bad side of Prisoner KSC2-303, who, equipped with a bitchin’ leather coat, turns out to be quite the zombie-killer. In fact, the whole killing zombies thing seems oddly familiar somehow…Versus
is relentlessly violent, gross, creepy, and silly, an exuberant, beautifully eccentric reinterpretation of the zombie movie that is always willing to mock itself when the genre cliches start to pile a little high, so you know it’s all in fun. And great fun it is.Dementia 13
Like Night of the Living Dead,
Francis Ford Coppola's first movie is all too easy to dismiss because it shares so many elements with its lesser cousins. Unlike Romero, however, Coppola plays with genre conventions not for the noble purpose of political commentary, but just to see how very good a bad movie can be.
Instead of atomic-age monsters, Coppola takes the Gothic mystery for his experimental subject here. Brittle, scheming blond Louise, desperate to get her hands on her husband's family fortune, is rather inconvenienced by his untimely demise during an eerie moonlight boat ride. This doesn't slow her down for long, however, as she plots to cover up his death long enough to ingratiate herself with his strange family, which includes sensitive younger brother Billy, unstable sculptor Robert, and the acid-tongued, superstitious matriarch Lady Haloran, who is obsessed with the sister, Kathleen, who died tragically several years ago. As events at the castle take a murderous turn, the movie embarks on a rather standard "cast suspicion upon every available character and also the supernatural" path, but in a most enjoyable way.
Setting aside minor details (such as why the Family Haloran, despite apparently being Irish gentry of long standing, all have American accents), Coppola is incredibly skillful at using B-movie trappings to their best effect, creating a truly creepy feeling of morbidity and obsession. Poor little Kathleen, whether or not she is a real ghost, certainly has plenty to be vengeful about, as her mother's clingy expectations for her during life, and her brothers' jealousy and resentment even after it's ended, are revealed. Though the body count is low, you'll have to look far and wide to find a more twisted or sleazily atmospheric little flick.