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10+ Horror Discoveries

Here are the ten best old-to-the-world, new-to-me horror movies I’ve watched so far this year:

10) Society (1989): Beneath the TV-quality production values, beneath the hairstyles and outfits that scream “late ’80s,” Society is a devastating gross-out satire. In fact, it feels even better-tailored to a post-Occupy America than to the socioeconomic climate into which it was released. I’ll never hear the word “shunt” again without a shudder.

9) Slither (2006): Here’s another movie that plays with gore like Jackson Pollock with dripping paint. It’s more or less a Night of the Creeps remake, but shifted from a college campus to a small, rural town, and with the added bonus of Michael Rooker at his most intimidating/squidlike.

8) Cube (1997): In the middle of this movie’s titular cube is a room with a lethal, sound-sensitive trap. And the scene in which five intrepid prisoners sneak through it made my knuckles the whitest they’ve been all year. This is existential horror done right on next to no budget: tense as hell, and very cruel.

7) Demon Seed (1977): Infamous as the “computer sexually assaults Julie Christie” movie, this is… that movie, and exactly as icky as its premise suggests. Plenty claustrophobic, too, as the amoral Proteus—speaking in the chilly voice of Robert Vaughn—closes in around his prey, wielding her locked house as a weapon.

6) Planet of the Vampires (1965): One of the many blueprints for Alien, this Bava space odyssey focuses less on plot and more on style, with impressive results. It’s a near-ballet of bold colors and production design, gradually descending into a morass of dread.

5) Lost Highway (1997): I actually found this a tad disappointing compared to other Lynch, but his movies tend to grow on repeat viewings, so I know I’ll return to it sooner or later. In the meantime, the performances of Roberts Blake and Loggia are enough to pull this noir-horror Möbius strip onto my list.

4) Suicide Club (2002): I still can’t make heads or tails of Sion Sono’s J-horror police procedural, but that’s much of its charm. Sometimes it’s a digital conspiracy thriller; occasionally it morphs into a rock musical or, at its best, a darker-than-dark absurdist comedy. Always mystifying and incredibly bloody.

3) Parents (1989): This was certainly my greatest surprise. I’d never heard a peep about Bob Balaban’s weird suburban fantasia before watching it, but I was instantly drawn in, disturbed, and enraptured by its child’s POV and nightmarish ambience. Career-best work by Randy Quaid as the father, too.

2) The Phantom Carriage (1921): I expected Victor Sjöström’s moral fable to be “good,” but it’s actually gonna-be-watching-this-for-years great. Shot like a series of grim Scandinavian woodcuts, it mines life mistakes for all their inherent horror, and ends with one hell of an emotional sucker punch. Plus it inspired the “Heeere’s Johnny!” shot in The Shining.

1) Tales from the Crypt (1972): This Amicus anthology is everything I want from a horror movie and more. It starts out creepy (with a killer Santa Claus!) and rises from there; it has an ace British cast, from Ralph Richardson to Joan Collins; and it has a few of the most morbidly ironic endings I’ve ever seen. A few of the stories here are still giving me chills.

And a few more… Signs (2002) is tremendously atmospheric, and preys on a childhood fear of mine; The Hitcher (1986) proves that Rutger Hauer can, if he so chooses, be the scariest man alive; Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) is painfully uneven, but worth it for the Dante, Miller, and wraparound segments; Frankenhooker (1990) is gleeful, trashy fun; and finally I have no excuse for The Final Destination (2009) and Final Destination 5 (2011). They’re just ridiculously watchable.

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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 1

By Andreas

It’s list-making time again! The alliteration-loving Marvin the Macabre over at The Montana Mancave Massacre has challenged horror bloggers to name their top 10 horror movies of the past 10 years. So of course, we had to do it. (I came up with a similar list of 20 horror faves from all time periods back in October.) You can expect Ashley’s top 10 sometime soon; in the meantime, here’s mine: ten rewatchable, well-made movies, and the best that recent horror has to offer.

10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2010)

I found a lot to dislike in the bioethical child-rearing allegory Splice: it adopts a lot of horror cliches without taking them anywhere; its writing is only clever in spates; and it goes completely off the rails at the end. But it’s got terrific special effects (especially in the creation of its monster, Dren) and when it’s darkly funny, it really the mark. That, plus its icy blue/green color palette and Adrien Brody’s hotness, sneaks it onto my list at #10.

9. Seed of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2004)

So many slasher sequels of the past decade have been formulaic, low-quality retreads. Hence why Seed of Chucky is such a breath of fresh air: it revels in its franchise’s inherent absurdity, piling meta-jokes and gory self-parody on top of its “killer doll on a rampage” premise. Turning the Child’s Play set-up inside out, Hollywood-style, is oodles of fun—as is seeing Jennifer Tilly finally get her equivalent of Being John Malkovich.

8. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

You can call it “children’s fantasy” all you want; I’m telling you, Coraline is an animated horror movie. The title character’s dream-turned-nightmare constitutes one of the decade’s most imaginative horror landscapes, and there’s no villain quite like the Other Mother, voiced with menacing sweetness by Teri Hatcher. Selick’s fluid stop-motion artistry and Neil Gaiman’s very scary novel turned out to be a match made in horror heaven.

7. Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)

No zombie movie of the 2000s (and there were a lot of them) had a twist quite as original as Pontypool‘s: here, the vector of disease isn’t saliva or blood, but words. Set in a claustrophobic radio station off in rural Ontario, the film milks all the terror it can out of talk radio call-ins—bleak audio-only testimonies to the increasingly violent havoc outside. The terror is counterbalanced only by the rough, reliable growl of Stephen McHattie, giving a powerful performance as a hotshot DJ trying to keep cool. Semiotic horror: that’s something you don’t see everyday.


6. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

This Korean monster movie casts off the genre straitjacket from the very beginning, and fearlessly mixes slapstick, tragedy, and anti-imperialist critique to tell the story of one family’s vendetta against a giant fish monster. Strange, stylish, and spectacular, The Host rewrites the rules of kaiju cinema while playing the audience’s heartstrings like a giant killer harp.

5. [REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)

Handheld Blair Witch rip-offs are a dime a dozen these days. Literally: they’re cheap to shoot, and often profitable. (See: Paranormal Activity.) But [REC] takes the caught-on-tape aesthetic into new territory, bringing the audience right into the heart of a quarantined zombie outbreak. It’s ceaselessly visceral and inventive, and introduces reporter Angela Vidal, one of my favorite recent final girls. Few movies beat [REC] when it comes to inducing raw, physical fear. (Not even [REC] 2, though it certainly tried.)

4. May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

I’m not shy about my love of May. I did write 1/4 of my senior thesis about it, after all. It’s a quirky, cute, romantic, gruesome, twisted, bloody, perverse indie horror confection, melding Frankenstein and Repulsion with something Zooey Deschanel might star in. It’s the bittersweet tale of an obsessive, attractive misfit and the lengths she goes to for love. It’s really, really good! Essential viewing if you’re interested in horror of the past decade, or any time.

3. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

For many stupid reasons, art films like Caché that debut at Cannes are rarely seen as authentic horror. But it is! It so is, and it’s one of the eeriest, most disturbing horror movies of the 2000s. It only has a single scene of actual gore, but that’s nothing compared to the lingering unease and uncertainty instilled by the rest of the movie. Who sent those tapes and letters, utterly destroying the Laurent family’s bourgeois comfort? It’s a question that persists after countless gratuitous slasher deaths have faded.

2. 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)

Boyle’s vision of post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested England is an elegy to a vanishing way of life (i.e., humanity). A hardy quartet of survivors make an arduous cross-country trek, punctuated both by bursts of violence and rare moments of beauty. In such a ruined world, 28 Days Later asks, can any altruism or compassion bloom? For all its brutality, it’s an unusually tender horror movie, with stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris doing very subtle, striking work. This is the new millennium’s gold standard of what a zombie movie can look like.

1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Really, what else could top this list? Not a single misstep mars Alfredson’s note-perfect adaptation of John Lindqvist’s young-love vampire novel. Sweet, delicate, and shockingly violent, Let the Right One In is as cool and crystalline as a snowflake. Oskar and Eli’s bizarre relationship is a refuge for two abused outsiders, two kids just trying to make a go of it in this hard world. It’s a theme we can all relate to and, in Alfredson’s gentle hands, it’s also the most beautiful, unforgettable horror movie of the 21st century.

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It’s Alive, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Killer Baby

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like anxieties over blood ties with a monster baby.]

Ashley:

As I’ve made apparent, I have a fondness for pregnancy/infant/child horror. It’s a kind of horror that is very palpable to me, probably due to my own deeply internalized fears of pregnancy, child birth, and children overall. It’s Alive (1974) is one of the best examples of pregnancy and family anxieties manifesting themselves in a monster child. The film opens up with a happy couple on their way to the hospital; Lenore Davis is pregnant with her second child. They send their son, Chris, to a friend’s to wait the night and head to the hospital for what is supposed to be a beautiful, happy occurrence. The situation quickly devolves into terror when, upon birth, their infant  slaughters the entire room of doctors and nurses before disappearing, causing a city-wide panic. What follows is as much a well-written family drama as it is a horror story.

The movie does an excellent job of presenting motherhood, and even femaleness itself, as a state of Otherness. From the very beginning after the child disappears from the hospital, the doctors and Frank Davis do a great job of continually oppressing Lenore. Frank  makes decisions about the mutant infant’s fate with the doctors without consulting Lenore first; the doctors give her placating drugs and suggest that she not even be downstairs in her own home due to the stress. Their clinically disconnected treatment of Lenore reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, wherein a woman’s neurosis and depression is deemed a feminine psychosomatic condition and she is ‘fixed’ with fresh air, pills and a refusal to let her work, despite what she wants for herself; she eventually goes bat shit insane. A similar fate awaits Lenore Davis.

The men around her- doctors, officers, and even (or most especially) her husband-do not experience the emotional investment that Lenore does in giving birth to an abnormal child who then immediately goes missing and therefore do not take it into account. They do not consider the psychological implications of carrying a pregnancy to term only to have it end with something arguably worse than the worst case scenarios of miscarriage or still-birth. Her increasingly deluded behavior is set on the back-burner in light of the threat facing the innocent citizens and her husband doesn’t have the patience or emotional capacity to deal with his family. He keeps his son, Chris, at a constant distance, refusing to bring him home or tell him what’s actually going on (which leads to deadly disaster later) and he refuses to listen to Lenore, whether she’s ruminating on how their infant came to be or falling quietly into madness.

Frank spends most of the movie struggling with the idea that the blood flowing through the killer infant’s veins links him irrevocably to Frank and his family. He lashes out at the police officers, unprovoked, demanding to know why they look at him as if it’s his child, before desperately denying any feelings for it;  after shooting at the baby, he tells Chris ‘it’s of no relation to us’. He further denounces any relation to the baby by implying to Lenore that Chris is ‘my son’ and asking her ‘see what your baby did…’ after the child kills a family friend.  This attitude reflects societal ideas about family ties; your family and how they act and what they are reflects on you as a person. Many people want to sever some family ties or disown certain members of their families for not living or acting or being a way that they find acceptable (of course, in the case of rampant murdering, the desire to obliterate ties makes sense). In Frank’s case, making Lenore responsible for the feral infant helps alleviate some of his guilt and stress. Frank, as the patriarch, can claim the normal child as his own, whereas Lenore is the bearer of a rotten fruit.

Despite the clear danger the Davis baby presents, Lenore, in her mentally unstable state, attempts to mother the infant; as was the case with Rosemary, blood is thicker than fear and maternal instincts override very real, dangerous realities. It’s Alive presents us with a foreign femininity that is misunderstood and ignored by male professionals; an image of hysterical motherhood that is both stereotype and reality. What mother wouldn’t defend her baby, her child, her flesh? Besides, he’s not ugly….

Alice:

“I always think that things that are small are more frightening than things that are large.” – Larry Cohen

Babies are supposed to be defenseless. They’re not supposed to attack. But in the world of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, modernity is toxic. So when the Davis family’s second child (the titular “it”) emerges from its mother’s womb, it can already defend itself, and leaves the delivery room a bloody mess. At its core, though, this isn’t a movie about nurses and joggers being cut down by the infant’s fangs. It’s about one family’s disintegration, and society’s complete failure to put them back together again. It’s about a house whose offspring has been corrupted by forces both inside and outside.

But yes, the starting point for that disintegration is a feral baby on a killing spree. The Davis baby’s unusual physiology gives new meaning to the words “family emergency,” and its parents are totally unable to cope. Frank is a white-collar PR man with a bad temper, and he can’t keep up with the onslaught of pressure from every angle: the unscrupulous media; his smarmy, two-faced boss (“He won’t be coming back”); academics anxious to dissect the monstrosity; and the police, who lack his personal interest in the crisis. Everyone’s eager to personally profit from Frank’s situation, forcing him to isolate himself from all of them, his wife included. “Should’ve known better than to trust anybody,” he mutters after a nurse turns out to be a journalist in disguise. With the Davis family marked as different, the scavengers descend.

Lenore doesn’t fare any better. While Frank runs around, fending off attacks on himself and his family, she’s cooped up in her room as a consequence of medical advice. From her initial protests at the hospital to her screams as she’s being carted away – “What does my baby look like?” – she’s systematically ignored and excluded from the entire medical process. The doctors, supposed experts on matters of the human body, use any excuse to discount her opinion, and what choice does she have? First she’s a hysterical mother giving birth, then she’s drugged, then she’s post-partum, then she’s the mother of a mutant child. Her own experience of her own body is discredited because it’s colored by maternal emotion.

Her only outlet is to go crazy, which she does with aplomb. One moment she’s theorizing out loud that untested pharmaceuticals (foisted on her by the medical establishment) could’ve caused the birth defects; the next, she’s laughing like mad at Looney Tunes. Later, she frantically cleans house as if trying to make her family normal again. It’s Alive is about the horror of a family attempting to survive 20th century industrial society. The baby’s existence tears it parents apart along gendered lines, leading the father out into the public domain (gun in hand) while the mother manages what’s left of the home. The mother reacts by shielding her child; the father flatly denies his parentage… until overcome by the infant’s sobs.

The baby, after all, wants nothing more than to be with its family. It visits its brother Chris’s school, then journeys to the Davis homestead, where it symbolically drains several jars of (its mother’s) milk. It mutilates the family cat, but Chris accepts it as kin. “Don’t worry… don’t be scared,” he reassures the baby. “I’ll protect you.” It’s Alive interrogates the very concept of a “normal family,” especially in such an abnormal, unreliable society. Ultimately, for each member of the family, the most “normal” value is the protection of the newborn son. As Carol J. Clover says in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Frank is “maternalized” (86), but it’s not just that he accepts a shift in gender role. He also comes to prioritize the unity of his family above external forces of law and order. This decision arrives too late, however, and the film’s bleak conclusion renders its hard-earned exchange of values totally moot.

While last month’s entry in the Final Girl Film Club, City of the Living Dead, worked mostly because it had oodles and oodles of gore, It’s Alive carefully rations out its graphic violence. The baby is only shown in shadows and quick close-ups, easily disappearing into the corners of the school or Chris’s room – environments where a child is more welcome than the police. The film methodically builds up its oppressive atmosphere so that even the act of opening of a fridge is imbued with terror. In another movie, our attention might’ve been fixed on the baby’s bloodied victims, like the milkman or the family friend Charlie. Here, they’re collateral damage to the central tragedy, practically relegated to afterthoughts. The motif of flashing lights, which fill the screen at the beginning and the sewers at the end, configures the outside world as hostile and intrusive, a massive entity that persecutes the Davis family (including its second child).

In its mood and style, It’s Alive barely resembles a “typical” horror movie; it feels more like a tense family drama. It could even be a cousin to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, another 1974 film about motherhood under assault. Other scenes look more like a Dirty Harry-style cop thriller. One of the keys to It’s Alive’s greatness is its refusal to be pinned down by genre or formula. It even works some dark comedy into its warped approach to childrearing. (For example, the camera lingers momentarily on a glittery sign on the back of a school bus which reads “STOP CHILDREN.”) In this aspect, it’s somewhat like Splice, another parenthood parable I recently reviewed. However, while that movie buried itself in its mad scientist clichés and its yen to go over the top, It’s Alive’s versatile director Larry Cohen keeps the action solidly rooted in the traumas of the Davis family.

Also like Splice, It’s Alive turns to Frankenstein as a metaphor for its conflict. (And as a source for its title, which is no longer Dr. Frankenstein’s “eureka,” but instead a pulpy announcement of impending horror.) During a conversation with a pair of university doctors, Frank ruminates on seeing the Karloff film version as a child, then reading the Shelley novel in high school. “I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?” By the end of the film, Frank realizes that maybe being a father isn’t so far removed from being a mad scientist after all. The film’s beautifully menacing final line – “Another one’s been born in Seattle” – furthers indicts all American families as potentially hazardous laboratories. So who knows? Maybe right now there’s a couple at work in a bedroom, accidentally breeding a monster.

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Sugar, Splice, and Everything Nice

Last Thursday, I went to see Splice. It didn’t sound great, necessarily, but I’d read conflicting reviews of it across the horror blogosphere, so I figured I might as well go check it out. (Besides, in theaters full of mediocre sequels and Marmaduke, it was pretty much the only appealing movie.) As expected, it wasn’t great, but it was food for thought, so I’m writing a review based on the notes I took while watching it. (Yes, I’m that kind of movie nerd.)

As you’ve probably read elsewhere already, Splice is about a pair of genetic engineers who tumble down the slippery slope, watch things spiral out of control, and endure other metaphors for incremental chaos. In short: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are young, they’re in love, and they clone things. They work for a corporation that pays them to produce special proteins; Elsa – against Clive’s wishes – decides to take their work to the next level, leaving them with a rapidly-growing chimera baby named Dren.

But, well, Elsa gets attached to Dren, then Dren gets attached to Clive, they go to a farmhouse in the countryside, a kitty dies… all the consequences you can easily foresee when you hear the words “mad scientist.” This is clearly co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s 21st century take on Frankenstein – the plot, character names, and the line “It’s alive,” constituting one big allusion – and he’s partially successful. The film cultivates many motifs already present in the Frankenstein story relating to the hell of parenthood, yielding a nice mix of black comedy and family melodrama. (Coincidentally enough, this is exactly what I thought of Seed of Chucky, which sustains this mood far better than Splice.)

Unfortunately, these delights are front-loaded, so Splice‘s second half is a lot less funny, clever, or logical – and the characters stop behaving in interesting or sensible ways. Granted, Elsa and Clive conform pretty well to the “absent-minded nerd” stereotype, subsisting on a diet of pizza, ramen, and tic tacs as they work on Dren. But as the film reaches its ickiest moment, science and reasonable decisions take a backseat to plot twists, which pretty much derailed my commitment to the movie. After that, it pretty much falls apart; much unnecessarily convoluted rape and murder ensue. It’s a real shame, because in a more deserving context, the closing scene could really have been powerful.

Focusing just on the first half of the movie, however, there’s a lot to love. The sudden scares and gross-outs you’d expect are pretty seamlessly incorporated alongside the interpersonal conflict. Clive and Elsa’s dispute over whether or not to keep Dren alive gets caught up with Dren’s own accelerating emotional problems, transmuting this little domestic squabble into pure horror. It’s just the right tense atmosphere for a simultaneous lesson in the ethics of science and parenting.

Alas, all of this promise just leads to a dead end. Elsa’s mother was crazy and abusive… but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Clive wants a child, then doesn’t want this child, then really wants this child… but then he and Elsa change their minds altogether. Much of Splice aspires to the cool, perverse genius of David Cronenberg. Between the tiny cast, secluded Canadian settings, and the curious coupling of science and sex, you can tell that Natali studied The Fly, and studied it well. But rather than ending with The Fly‘s controlled tragedy, Splice goes off in a million directions at once, and fails to make characters’ deaths count.

Like Dren, Splice includes many of the right ingredients for success. It has a pair of talented and attractive stars, some great special effects, and an intriguing, if not overly original, premise. But as with Dren, these parts fail to congeal as the experimenters lose sight of their original goals. It’s no masterpiece, but an intriguing mesh of disparate genetic material. Was this ever about cinema?

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