Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Woooooooo! A Spooky Film Marathon for Halloween

By Steve Evans

“I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.” ~ Holy Sonnet VII.

Psychological research into the appeal of the horror film suggests that scary movies supply a way to deal with the inevitability of death in a controlled situation. The mantra "it's only a movie" reminds us that the credits will eventually roll and the imaginary terrors will fade away with the brightening of the house lights. We flirt with oblivion in the safety of the cinema.

Stephen King a quarter-century ago published Danse Macabre, an excellent thesis on the appeal of horror, with two superb chapters on the horror film and intriguing analysis of prime movies in this genre. It is recommended reading for anyone who enjoys a good adrenaline jolt from celluloid terrors.

With Halloween just 10 days away, I would like to offer something similar, but without King's exhaustive analysis on the enduring appeal of horror films. Instead, here is the list of what I consider to be the 10 most outrageously terrifying movies made to date, all suitable for a Halloween marathon. Criteria for the selection includes influence. Each of these movies had a profound impact on the horror film genre.

Why no Exorcist? Because it is just a silly picture. Slick and effectively directed, sure. But it's not scary. Anyone frightened by The Exorcist (1973) took Sunday School far too seriously.

I've also compiled a list of 10 more fantastical flicks that evoke not so much fear, but an uncanny sense of unease and dread that will creep into your subconscious and lease permanent space in your mind.

Ready? Set? Boo!

10. Spoorloos (The Vanishing; 1988) directed by George Sluizer. This Dutch psychological thriller follows the mysterious disappearance of a young woman and her lover's obsessive three-year search for answers. Along the way, he meets a psychopath who holds the key. The ultimate revelation haunted me for days. Avoid the director's needless American remake with Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland.

9. Night of the Living Dead (1968) Directed by George Romero. This hugely influential film launched Romero's career as king of the zombies. Seldom has low-budget, black & white filmmaking with documentary techniques been put to such effective use in scaring the hell out of an audience. When the dead become reanimated and attack the living, 7 people hole up in an abandoned farmhouse to make a last stand against armageddon. That nihilistic ending still has the capacity to shock.

8. Rosemary's Baby (1968) Directed by Roman Polanski. Waif-like Mia Farrow is the eponymous Rosemary, who wonders if her mind is unravelling or if she really was raped by the Devil.

7. The Mist (2007) Directed by Frank Darabont from a script adapted from a Stephen King novella. A ragtag group of individuals representing a microcosm of society board themselves up in a grocery store when an ominous mist descends over their quiet New England town. Savage creatures lurk inside The Mist, but as Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) demonstrates convincingly, there is nothing more deadly than zealots who envelop themselves in a shroud of religious belief as justification for their evil deeds. Here is another example of how the delicate threads holding together the fabric of society will unravel at the first sign of genuine crisis. That's more frightening than any beastie lurking in this movie.

6. Night of the Hunter (1955) Directed by Charles Laughton from a screenplay by James Agee. Robert Mitchum, in his greatest performance, plays a psychopathic preacher with a switchblade hunting two little children across the American heartland during the Depression. A classic parable of Good and Evil, with silent film star Lillian Gish representing the former human quality in one of her last screen appearances. "Did I ever tell you the little story of right hand, left hand? Of love and hate?"

5. The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrick from a script adapted from Stephen King's novel. This eerie mood piece posits the provocative idea that nothing is more terrifying than one family quietly going insane together. My main problem with the film is Jack Nicholson flies off the rails so quickly that his descent into madness doesn't seem like much of a stretch. But Kubrick creates an aura of dread over the proceedings so profound that the elliptical ending can be forgiven. Let's just say Kubrick's point is to create a Moebius Loop of cyclical terror and leave it at that. Jack has always been the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The result is existential horror that would make Camus proud.

4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Directed by Jonathan Demme. Everybody remembers Anthony Hopkins' Oscar winning performance as the charming, malevolent Dr. Hannibal Lector. Few people are aware that he occupies the screen for less than 17 minutes during a nearly 2-hour run time. Now that's what I call making an impression. Silence of the Lambs presents a sympathetic and sturdy heroine in Jodie Foster, who also won an Academy Award, facing implaccable and utterly insane evil so bizarre and incomprehensible that her situation seems beyond hope. Dr. Lector steals the show. By comparison, Buffalo Bill is a girly-man, figuratively and literally.

3. Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott. The most terrifying science fiction movie ever made, exploiting our fears of boogeymen creeping around in the dark and, yes, inside our own bodies. Word is, Scott is attached to direct a prequel to his 30-year-old blockbuster. Here's hoping he explores the origins of that weird space jockey (above, right) who our unfortunate friends from the Nostromo stumble across during their explorations of planetoid LV-426.

2. Jaws (1975) Directed by Steven Spielberg. It may be difficult to understand the phenomenon that was Jaws unless you saw the film during its original theatrical run nearly 35 years ago, in an auditorium packed with people who scarcely had a clue what they were in for. The best thing that ever happened to Spielberg's career was a giant, rubber mechancial shark that never really worked like it was supposed to, so he had to improvise by suggesting the presence of a monster while seldom giving us more than a glimpse. The result, as Hitchcock had long understood, forced the audience to use their imagination to visualize something dreadful below the calm ocean surface. And the imagination is always more vivid than any monster a special effects expert can display on-screen, whether it be made of rubber or gigabytes of computer generated imagery.

1. Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Because nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of losing one's mind, unless you happen to be showering at a hotel managed by a quiet young man and his domineering mother. Hitch always said he intended Psycho as a comedy. It is indeed an amusing picture if you know where to look. "My mother, what is the expression...? Isn't quite herself today."

Here are 10 films in order of release year that are guaranteed to evoke a chilling mood 'round midnight (I like to think of these as tone poems):

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the granddaddy of films about madness and one of the most important pictures in German Expressionism during the Weimar Republic before Hitler seized power and unleashed real horror on the world. Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his zombie-like somnambulist in a box, roam the countryside as part of a travelling carnival. Wherever they go, the corpses pile up. More importantly, they inhabit a world of jagged angles and steep slopes, where rooms shaped like triangles open onto surrealistic landscapes dotted with buildings on which shadows are painted to the walls. The production design is both the key to the plot and the reason Caligari remains a classic of the cinema. Essential viewing.

Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau is another silent classic from the German Expressionist movement. The full title, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, translates as "A Symphony of Horror" and that is precisely what Murnau delivers in this blatant adpatation of the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker (Stoker's widow sued unsuccessfully to have all prints of Nosferatu destroyed). The titular vampire is a terrifying creation as embodied by the aptly named actor Max Schreck. Rat-like and riddled with disease, Nosferatu creeps from his casket to caress the pale, white throats of his lady victims. If some silent films can be described as dreamlike, this is a black & white nightmare.

M (1931) directed by Fritz Lange stars bug-eyed Peter Lorre as the psychotic child murderer of Dusseldorf. When the police are unable to apprehend the fiend, the Dusseldorf underworld engages in a manhunt for the killer because he's bad for business. Lang's masterstroke in this early taking picture is the use of sound to indicate the presence of the unseen madman. As Lorre approaches his young victims off screen, we hear him whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King," an incessant, intensifying melody from The Peer Gynt Suite by composer Edvard Grieg. An eerie evocation of madness.

Vampyr (1932) directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer is a haunting, dreamlike ephemera so delicate the picture feels like it might evaporate before our eyes like a poltergeist. The intrigue of the plot is secondary to the hypnotic quality of the imagery. The Criterion Collection edition offers the most complete print available of this important film.

Freaks (1932) nearly ruined director Tod Browning's career. MGM challenged him to make a picture more disturbing than Dracula, which he helmed a year earlier at Universal. He succeeded beyond their wildest aspirations when the film was exhibited in '32 to an appalled public. Banned for decades in Europe and seldom seen on American television, Freaks acquired a cult following among 1960s hippies more than 35 years after its release. The Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release of this incredible film belongs on your shelf.

The Mummy (1932) directed by Karl Freund is essentially a remake of Dracula made a year earlier, for which Freund served as cinematographer. Same essential plot. Same supporting cast. Same peculiar use of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. With a mesmerizing performance by Boris Karloff, billed here as "Karloff the uncanny." The first 5 minutes will raise the hair on the back of your neck. The rest is merely excellent.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) was directed by Jacques Tourneur for legendary producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton knew how to get mileage out of his production dollars; in this case, cribbing from Charlotte Brontë. Yes, I Walked with a Zombie is Jane Eyre on Voodoo Island. An unforgettable mood piece that will haunt you for days.

Venus in Furs (1968) also known as Proximus, is a psychedelic thriller with a pounding jazz score directed by Spaniard Jess Franco, the prolific maestro of b-movies. A jazz trumpeter wandering the beach finds the nude body of Wanda, who was the victim of a sadomasochistic cult, we learn in flashbacks. Later, the musician meets a woman who may be Wanda reincarnated. Soon, her killers begin to die one by one. Shot on location in exotic Rio and half a world away in Istanbul. Wildly inventive. Trippy as hell.

Phantasm (1979) directed by Don Coscarelli played the drive-in circuit on its original release, but don't be fooled by the low budget. This independent horror film about 2 brothers investigating weird goings-on in the local cemetery will scare the bajeezus out of you. Ghoulish Angus Scrimm plays The Tall Man, an inspired character in the pantheon of horror pictures. With a trip to another dimension, diminutive hommunculi armed with daggers, sex in a graveyard and an unforgettable flying steel ball with spikes for impaling victims in the forehead.

Jacob's Ladder (1990) directed by Adrain Lynne lifts the thoughts of German philosopher Martin Heidegger to tell the tale of Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) whose war flashbacks and horrifying visions threaten his sanity. Contains some of the most unsettling imagery ever committed to film. Makes a terrific double-feature with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) when you're in the mood to ponder perception and the nature of our fleeting existence.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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