Were you to ask me to recommend you a good horror film at Amoeba I would invariably direct you to the Val Lewton section and I would try explaining why the films that he did for RKO in the 1940s are some of the most astonishingly sophisticated and genuinely haunting movies ever made. The reason I would rely on Lewton’s films for a good horror recommendation is twofold—they’re really that good and I haven’t seen that many horror films because I think a lot of them look really gross. Psychological thrillers are the tops but when a film involves the removal of intestines and the liquefying of brain matter - and worse when it takes place in the 1970s (I hate those even more for some reason, I think because of all the excess body hair) - I know that a film is not for me. Suffice to say the oeuvre of Rob Zombie is pretty much off my radar. I can’t help it! But sometimes I come across a horror film with real emotional depth and a captivating escalation of dread and tension and I remember how excellent a horror film can be if it meets my weird aesthetic criteria. The Innocents is the kind of film I’m talking about. It’s one of the most unsettling films ever made. The horror is there but it exists in such an ambiguous, queasy realm of anxiety and when it’s over you will question what you really saw, but you will not stop thinking about the film for a long time.
The Innocents is an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Turn of the Screw, though apparently the movie adheres closer to the play that was spun off of the book (also called The Innocents). It’s interesting to note that Harold Pinter was one of the authors who worked on the screenplay. It’s an English gothic horror story set at a country estate, but while the repressive atmosphere of a Victorian setting is ever present the shades of nuance in the psychology of the film is startling even for the early 1960s. It’s hard to imagine the same film being made in the United States. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after the orphaned niece and nephew of a London playboy who has no intention of living with them in the country. She is our guide as we descend into a very weird state of affairs at the house.Continue Reading
The Stepfather (1987)
The whole "death to remakes" wave didn’t really hit me until there was a remake of this film. It seems as though when one produces a remake of a movie that was very popular or influential to a genre, such as The Thing or Clash of the Titians, audiences will keep in mind the differences and critical aspects of both, often remaining loyal to the original or the "better" of them. At the very least, every generation is aware of the fact that it was a remake. With The Stepfather, it seems as though no one really remembers the first, which is a shame. Along with Arachnophobia, it remains one of the few films, horror or otherwise, which can get under my skin in a good way. I’ll admit that I am not a horror buff, which I’d argue is very common for people born after the mid-'80s. Horror films seemed to stand out, if not dominate audiences back then, as they should following a baby boom that left a considerable amount of teenagers and young adults who expected the ultimate theater experience. Many of the films that I’ve just been introduced to are some of the most well designed films around, in any genre. Not just for story, but for the lack of computer effects and some notorious soundtracks by awesome conductors.
The Stepfather plants its tactics in the home, unlike most other horror films. There are no (fictional) monsters—no radiated zombies or blood thirst beasts. The film opens with its most psychologically disturbing scene. A peaceful suburb is overlooked and all the attention is placed on a beautiful home. A man washes his bloody hands in a bathroom. He looks like a gangly lumberjack. Within minutes, he is showered and begins to change his appearance right down to his eye color. Standing in the mirror now is a clean-shaven gentleman in a nice suit. The look on his face both before and after his transformation tells us that there is a screw loose up there in his big head. He puts his old clothes, spectacles, and wedding ring into a suitcase and walks into the hall, where the buzz of a phone off the hook has spread throughout the house. He returns some toys to their bin (he's a tidy man, after all). You see adorable photos off-kilter on the stairway and still you are not alarmed, until he reaches the bottom of the steps and blood is smeared on the wall. The mangled bodies of his wife and young daughter are on the floor; it becomes obvious that he is the killer. But what does he do before he leaves the grizzly scene? Places the blood-smeared phone back in its cradle and puts the cushion of a chair back where it belongs. It’s as if he’s thinking that when the cops find the massacre, they will note that barbarians didn’t live there.Continue Reading
The Blood Splattered Bride
Feminist theory and the Sexual Revolution explode on screen for this fleshy and colorful vampire tale. It bends the rules quite a bit by allowing for vampires who roam around in daylight, as well as having a female lead and another who plays the vampire in erotic pursuit.
Susan (Maribel Martin) and her husband (Simon Andreu) are two newlyweds who decide to skip a hotel and take their honeymoon at his family's estate. Susan quickly becomes an admirer of his home and family until she realizes their attitude toward women. After noticing that the walls containing portraits of his ancestors only have paintings of men, she discovers that all the ones of the women in the family are hidden in the cellar. One in particular sparks her interest—the portrait of Mircalla Kerstein, a young bride with a blood-stained pearl dagger and a missing face, who murdered her husband on their wedding night, claiming that he requested she do despicable things.Continue Reading
I checked out Deadgirl as an experiment. There was no way anyone could make a film about a zombie sex slave and elevate it beyond an unbelievable, exploitative sleaze-fest of misery the trailer painted it out to be. At best, I would walk away from it knowing how NOT to make a horror film; at worst, I'd say "yuck" and take a long hot shower afterward. But I also had to see it because it was the first movie idea I heard in a while that actually made me think I could say "yuck." As horror fans, we're all trying to find the next high--the next stomach-churning gross out, or even better, a story that might actually send a genuine chill of fear down our spines after we thought we've seen it all. Deadgirl delivers the heeby-geebies more effectively than I predicted, but probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. Underneath an odd attempt to create a coming of age story, there's a social commentary being made on how terrifyingly clueless teens might be today on what it means to be a "man."
Unpopular, more likely to smoke a joint than pick up a football, and too inept to talk to girls, Rickie and J.T. at least start the story off as ordinary teenage misfits. When cutting school for a day for some old-fashioned beer-drinking and petty vandalism at the local abandoned insane asylum, however, they find something that proves to be a right of passage neither quite imagined for themselves: a naked girl strapped to a table in the dank and decrepit basement of the hospital. Rickie wants to run away and pretend they were never there, but J.T. gets a more deviant idea. "We could keep her," he says. What's the moral thing to do? Well, that question gets hazy once they realize the girl is sort-of-but-not-really dead. The real trouble begins, though, when word gets out to more boys at school. I'll just say that a whole lot more gets lost than friendship (and virginity).Continue Reading
I Drink Your Blood
First off, let me announce that while this film has boatloads of bloodshed and theme music that warns for danger, I think it is safe to classify it as a cult classic if you wish. The plot is amazing and reflects the vast majority of cult films where just about anything is possible. For instance, in what other genre can you see 50-ft women who trample cities, phobias of every drug imaginable, and alternate fantasies pulled from the minds of those with some of the biggest imaginations? I Drink Your Blood is a movie that would please a cult fanatic more than one of the horror genre, more specifically modern horror. Set in a small town, a group of LSD addicted hippies who belong to a satanic cult have come for a little vacation. At first, their stay is merely criticized by locals until a townsman of old age and his grandson stumble upon one of their bizarre torture rituals and discover that all is not well. When caught, the group holds the boy down and forces the old man to take LSD, causing him to later freak out and ultimately traumatizing his grandson. After witnessing the event, the young boy wanders into the woods and confronts a rabid dog, later to return and shoot the animal in order to collect some of its contaminated blood. The next morning he ventures to the local deli where the only thing on the menu, and thus the only source of food for these mean-spirited hippies, is meat pies. He injects the pies with the rabid blood, unleashing a wave of destruction as the LSD addicted hippie-zombies then blow through the town with a thirst for flesh and a phobia of water.
The only ultra-cheesy aspect of the film is the music that looms in the background when danger is up ahead. In short, it sounds like a collaboration of speedy synthesizers near the point of combustion. The costumes are great, as well as the color contrast, and especially the lighting. The film stock is a bit grainy, which works well for a film from the '70s and adds to the whole drive-in movie effect. The hair…my God, it alone holds the movie up. Never again will you see awesome styles, still lingering from the '60s, equipped with stunning sideburns and overflowing chest hair. The dialog is cheesy, but placed in the right context and certainly one-of-a-kind. I almost wish I could take a trip back to the '70s in order to see if the phrases they used actually existed in everyday speech, or if they only appeared in movies. At every corner there is some sharp object (knife, sword, dagger) or cooler tools like fire, water, and stakes to wage war between the locals and the Satanists, whose number only increases as they contaminate others.Continue Reading
A fantastical adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin. Not that I've ever read any Zola, mind you, but I've read about him. Maybe after I've finished working my way through the entire output of the 19th century Russian realists, I'll be ready. If only Zola had featured more vampires in his stories...Well, Chan-Wook Park knows how to get me interested in realism, at least -- same as the Russians -- with ideological discussions of atheism.
Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) is a Catholic priest with a martyr complex or strong death drive (amounts to the same thing, I suppose), who plays guinea pig in a macabre experiment to help doctors find a cure for a virus that's particularly dangerous to Korean men. He's the only one to survive the voluntary infection due to a transfusion using vampire blood. The catch is that he now needs to feed on normal human blood to keep from sweating his own and breaking out in disfiguring boils. Initially, he's racked by guilt over his bodily urges, which leads to his sucking on a comatose patient's IV and a fellow priest, Noh (In-hwan Park), with a more sanguine attitude about the vampire virus. Sang-hyeon sees vampirism as a loss of humanity, Noh as a gift, a potential cure for his blindness. Due to his miracle cure, the vampire picks up a religious following of Catholics who see him as another messiah, parallel to that other popular tale of transfiguration. Is he a vampire who walks like a man, or man who acts like a vampire?Continue Reading
"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena DubrovnaContinue Reading
Viy (Spirit of Evil)
Viy (Spirit of Evil) is a classic Russian horror film based on a story of the same name by the acclaimed Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. It is a dark, yet humorous film set in medieval times, in the Russian countryside, and it involves demons, witches, and wayward priests.
The story begins with three traveling priests who, after being on their journey for some time, decide that it would be better to find a house to sleep in instead of a field. They soon find an old farmhouse and knock on the gate. The call is answered by an old crone who instructs the priests that if they are to sleep in the farm they must all sleep in separate places.Continue Reading
The Midnight Meat Train
The only thing more frightening about Midnight Meat Train the film, is the way the film itself was treated by the powers that be. Apparently, the ‘train’ came to a screeching halt when Joe Drake (President of Lions Gate) forced a poor turnout to this film by way of limiting the release to roughly 100 budget theatres in order to draw attention to schlock garbage like The Strangers, which could be seen in multiplexes across the country. In my humble opinion, if properly marketed, Midnight Meat Train could’ve sparked the next huge horror franchise. But then again, I like my horror films dirty, dark and dreadful. Not the kind of things that shiny studio films are made of.
Midnight Meat Train opens with a disturbing encounter on an anonymous subway in an anonymous city, which we’re made to believe is New York. This is where we meet our big bad villain superbly played by ex-footballer, Vinnie Jones. And thus begins our train ride into the dark annals of the human mind… led by your conductor, Mr. Clive Barker.Continue Reading
Lady in White
A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).
Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.Continue Reading