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 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
The People Under the Stairs
The People Under the Stairs is absolutely bonkers. It's as if David Lynch and Wes Craven took a field trip to the ghetto and came away with an outrageous idea for a thriller/horror movie. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks take on another strange domestic role as a brother and sister who never seemed to grow out of playing house and who like to steal children. The movie shares the same violent color schemes and unsettling (yet somehow humorous) dialogue that you find in practically every Lynch film.
Following the newly 13-year-old Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Quintin Adams), the story opens up with a tarot reading from his older sister Ruby that warns of a year filled with death and ignorance. The two siblings are struggling to make ends meet as their mother is slowly dying of cancer. They're the only tenants remaining in a building that their landlord wishes to tear down in order to make room for condos and tenants who aren't predominately black. Ruby's boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) is a petty criminal who's tired of seeing families thrown to the streets and offers Fool an alternative in making the payments they need to stay there. He's come across a map of the landlord's home and plans to rob it. Rumor has spread across generations that the steep rent and poor conditions of the ghetto has led to a ton of profits for the landlord. This money, thought to be a mass hoard of gold coins, is said to be inside and Leroy wants to get his hands on it.Continue Reading
Philosophy, justice, and Catholic theology are blended to a pulp in this breathtaking example of 1970s horror. By the time the '80s rolled around, cinematic exploration with special effects was at its peak in terms of prosthetics and make-up. Several masters - mainly in Italy, America, and Japan - had reached new heights and dug up several techniques from the past that were introduced as early as the silent era. The Sentinel impressed me with both its story and its remarkable efforts to pull off a complicated film. It is an adaptation of Jeffrey Konvitz's novel, and during a Q&A he expressed some issues with it, as I'm sure is natural for a writer in his position. He did have a lot to do with the production and even co-wrote the script. Aside from certain things being changed for the film, it's safe to say that the other large issue he had was with the film's production, claiming that he would have wanted a different director and a slightly different cast. I'll get to why I disagree shortly.
I'm going to attempt to play down all the action in the plot because there is so much of it and to explain it all would be to give away the best parts. In the film we find Alison (Cristina Raines), a model who wants some space from her boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon) and seeks an apartment of her own. She finds a number of places and eventually settles on a well-furnished and roomy place in an old building. The landlady (Ava Gardner) seems more than eager to get her to move in, dropping the price from $600 to $400 in order to seal the deal. On top of the fact that she is not willing to settle, she has other troubles on her mind when she hears the news of her father's death. Her feelings for him are cold due to a shocking revelation about his character that caused her to practically denounce her Catholic faith as a teenager and led to her first attempt to commit suicide. In her building she finds two people who sort of symbolize other father figures. Seen facing from the highest window of the complex is Father Halliran (John Carradine), a blind, reclusive priest. The other is Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), an overbearing old man who invites himself in on occasion and talks to his animals as if they were people.Continue Reading
The Seventh Victim
The best Val Lewton movie not directed by Jacques Tourneur, The Seventh Victim is an almost perfect summation of the famed producer’s themes of loneliness, alienation, urban paranoia, and romantic fatalism, just without some of the visual poetry that Tourneur brought to his own Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie). But it’s pretty haunting all the same. The plot is so sinister. A naive but determined teenage girl named Mary (a plain Jane named Kim Hunter) leaves her upstate boarding school to look for her missing older sister, Jacqueline (played by Lewton regular, Jean Brooks) in New York. Once in New York Mary acts as a Nancy Drew sort of detective, piecing together the clues of her sister’s disappearance before arriving at the conclusion that her sister is under the control of a group of Greenwich Village devil worshipers.
Mary’s only guardian is her older sister Jacqueline, a New York sophisticate with a sort of Egyptian art deco haircut who owns her own perfume company. Mary traces her previous whereabouts, discovering that before her disappearance Jacqueline mysteriously deeded her company to some of her co-workers. Various friends and lovers of Jacqueline, equally concerned about her, help Mary in her quest but nothing seems to quell the overarching feeling of doom hanging over the character of Jacqueline. She’s a different take on the Laura Palmer mystery, a beguiling woman no one could save.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
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
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
Legend has it that if you witness the Wendigo today, sometime tomorrow someone will die. This, according to many beliefs held by several Native American tribes, is not necessarily the basis for this Larry Fessenden (Habit, Last Winter, No Telling) picture. But it sure provides a creepy overtone for the haunting tale.
George (Jake Weber), Kim (Patricia Clarkson) and Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) are headed to upstate New York from Manhattan so that George can escape the high strung atmosphere of his job as a professional photographer for an advertising agency. Things turn bleak when George accidentally runs into a deer which prompts a very uncomfortable encounter with three locals. The attention of the audience shifts to Miles. While his character is rather brooding and subtle, Miles is shrouded in innocence. George and Kim are very protective of their young son and this becomes evident as the prolonged contention between the family and the locals becomes more volatile, particularly with the character of Otis (John Speredakos).Continue Reading
Witchfinder General is a small classic of English horror that only recently saw re-release in its intended form. Originally distributed as The Conqueror Worm, to capitalize on the Edgar Allan Poe vehicles of its star Vincent Price, Michael Reeves’ film has previously been seen with incongruous narration and extraneous nudity added and its original score excised. A 2007 DVD restoration righted these wrongs, and it can now be experienced in all its chilling glory.
In 17th century England, chaos descends as civil war rages between King Charles I’s Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. “Witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins (Price) roams the countryside extracting “confessions” from accused witches and collecting a fee for each hanging and drowning, abetted by the sadistic torturer and rapist John Stearne (Robert Russell). A young coronet in Cromwell’s insurgent army (Ian Ogilvy) and his fiance (Hilary Dwyer) become entangled with the murderous Hopkins.Continue Reading