I’ve never been a big fan of horror films and usually try to avoid them, but the horror genre has become such a significant gap in my cinematic experience (“you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead?! OMGWTFBBQ!”) that I decided to make a concerted effort during the month of October to catch up on some horror classics and expand my horror repertoire. I didn’t get through nearly all of the recommendations I got for the project, but hey! I’m all set for next year. :) Anyway, October’s long gone, but here’s a brief rundown of the Horror Experiment, which I actually enjoyed quite a lot.
Val Lewton series
The Silent Movie Theatre devoted October to horror, as well, including a double-feature series of Val Lewton-produced films, which are among the best classic horror films ever made (along with the Universal monster series). I wrote a bit about most of Lewton’s films in this Film on TV post, when TCM played a Lewton festival. I won’t repeat myself on Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie or Isle of the Dead, or The Body Snatcher, except to say that I saw all of them for the second (or third, or fourth) time in October, and they get better each time. The only film in the Silent Movie Theatre’s series I hadn’t seen was The Ghost Ship (not to be confused with the 2002 film Ghost Ship), which isn’t particularly a horror film. It was a well-done psychological drama, exploring (as all of Lewton’s films do) the potential horror that anyone may carry within themselves – in this case, a ship’s second in command becoming paranoid that the captain may want him dead. It reminded me of The Caine Mutiny more than anything else.
Cat People – USA 1942; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Simone Simon, Kent Smith – IMDb
I Walked With a Zombie – USA 1943; directed by Jacques Tourneur; starring Frances Dee, James Ellison – IMDb
The Ghost Ship – USA 1943; directed by Mark Robson; starring Richard Dix, Russell Wade – IMDb
The Body Snatcher – USA 1945; directed by Robert Wise; starring Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell – IMDb
Isle of the Dead – USA 1945; directed by Mark Robson; starring Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew – IMDb
Amazon (box set of these all these Lewton films, plus a couple of others)
Night of the Living Dead
Zombies have always been a particular dislike of mine, keeping me away from pretty much all of George Romero’s films. But I bit the bullet and crossed the best-known zombie movie of all time off my list. And you know what? It’s good. And I think my blind hatred of zombies is fading (more on that in a bit). I found it especially interesting that the hero character is black – in 1968, Romero reversed racial stereotypes that still plague horror films today. I can’t decide whether I liked that the zombies were caused by radioactivity. It’s very classic sci-fi nuclear paranoia, but I sort of like horror to be more unexplained.
USA 1968; directed by George A. Romero; starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea
IMDb | Amazon (note: there are at least eight editions of Night of the Living Dead on DVD; from a bit of quick research, the Millennium Edition I’ve linked here seems to be unanimously the best print)
I put this one off for a long time because I was afraid that a Roman Polanski-directed film about the birth of the anti-Christ would be too freaky. It isn’t. Most of it was actually a little boring. Lots of Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer being subtly odd and Mia Farrow being subtly creeped out. The part where she was impregnated by the devil was definitely freaky, but in a very over-the-top way that made it not quite work for me. I did, however, learn that if you do happen to be impregnated by the devil, be prepared for an extremely uncomfortable pregnancy.
USA 1968; directed by Roman Polanski; starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
IMDb | Amazon
Tales from the Crypt
This got recommended me after I mentioned that 1945’s anthology film Dead of Night was one of my favorite horror movies. In this anthology horror film, five people get lost while exploring a crypt and the crypt-keeper tells them grisly stories that may be in the future – or in their past. The five stories are all interesting and macabre, almost like Twilight Zone episodes. I really like the anthology format; most horror films seem to have about a half-hour or hour long story stretched into two hours anyway.
USA 1972; directed by Freddie Francis; starring Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing
IMDb | Amazon
I’ve delved a very little bit into the world of Japanese horror (with Kwaidan, which still deserves a rewatch from me, and Ringu, which I honestly didn’t like as much as its American remake), and though I’m still struggling with my understanding of Japanese cinema, Retribution is definitely my favorite Jhorror so far, and I’m looking foward to seeing some of director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s other films. A detective is haunted by a woman in a red dress and has to delve deep in his memories to figure out why. It’s thoughtful, creepy, has lovely cinematography, and somehow the jump scenes didn’t bother me as much as usual. The end was a little disappointing, though – like Kurosawa didn’t quite know how to finish and just threw something on that doesn’t really make sense.
Japan 2006; directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; starring Kôji Yakusho, Riona Hazuki
IMDb | Amazon
Here’s how I know my zombie-hatred is on the way out. I LOVED Planet Terror. I avoided even the idea of seeing Grindhouse in theatres, because it sounded so totally not my thing, and I never thought that I would remotely enjoy Robert Rodriguez’s part of the double-feature more than Tarantino’s. (I never did make it through Death Proof, out of sheer boredom.) But Planet Terror takes Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Kill Bill, and I don’t know what all else and turns up the gleeful schlock meter to eleven. You’ve got zombies, gratuitous blood, sharpshooters, explosions, girls with machine gun legs, and dialogue like “Looks like a no-brainer!” (from an ER doctor regarding a patient – in the next shot, we see she literally has no brains, presumably because the zombies have eaten them). My liking Planet Terror as much as I did is basically a giant flashing neon sign that I have been avoiding horror movies for far too long, at least the schlocky b-movie kind.
USA 2007; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez
IMDb | Amazon
Let the Right One In
At the other side of the spectrum from Planet Terror is this unusual Swedish vampire flick, which may still be playing in limited release. Catch it if you can. A young boy, ridiculed and bullied at school, befriends his new neighbor, a mysterious girl who seems much sadder and wiser than her apparent age. Then there are some murders and it starts getting harder for her to keep her true nature hidden, and the boy has to choose how to react to her after he finds out what she is. The pacing is leisurely, the photography moody – wait, it’s a Swedish film, these things are taken for granted. There are a couple of incongruously comic scenes that I didn’t care for too much, and I think the film has been overhyped by critics, but in general, it is a welcome and refreshing change from the average horror film.
Sweden 2008; directed by Tomas Alfredson ; starring Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson
IMDb | Amazon (coming to DVD March 9, 2009)