Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ten Halloween Treats

If you are like me, then that distinguished period of time every year starting around mid-October and lasting through Halloween evening brings with it, aside from the obvious indulgences of candy, costumes and parties, the opportunity to immerse yourself in your favorite horror films for days on end. It is in celebration of this that I present you (in chronological order) ten excellent horror films that may have slipped under your radar for one reason or another:

The Seventh Victim (dir. Mark Robson, 1943)

Producer Val Lewton's masterpiece is this menacing, moody offering starring Kim Hunter as a student who must abandon her Catholic schooling to embark on a search for her missing sister in a dreary Manhattan infested with devil worshippers, ominous shadows and things that go bump in the night. With an incredibly bleak conclusion even by today's standards, The Seventh Victim generates the type of movie experience that sticks in your head for many days.

Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

As he was so often apt to do, here Tourneur takes a smallish budget and fairly hokey plot and spins out of them an eerie and effective example of minimalist horror. Dana Andrew stars as Dr. John Holden, a psychologist and supernatural skeptic who, after the suspicious death of a colleague, finds himself in way over his head with local cultists and supposedly only a few days to live. Curse of the Demon, as it was renamed when released in America, has 15 key minutes trimmed out, so be sure to get the Night version if you seek it out (which you obviously should).

The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)

Clayton's brilliant adaptation of Henry James' s equally brilliant novella The Turn of the Screw is not only my favorite horror movie of all time, but also the most genuinely unsettling one I've ever seen. Deborah Kerr gives her greatest performance as the new governess of a lonesome and (possibly) haunted country mansion, watching over the two children who live there. Is the place truly haunted by the ghosts of its sadistic sex-crazed former employees? Is Kerr possibly projecting her own sexual frustrations and inadequacies onto the children? The Innocents weaves its Freudian themes in spellbinding fashion, leading to a controversial ending that is all at once frustrating, cathartic and utterly terrifying.

Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

Quite possibly the most gorgeous horror movie ever made, Kwaidan (based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century Japanese folklorist), is an anthology of four tales, expressionist in nature, with horrors that for the most part lie dormant yet throbbing just below the surface, giving the film a pervasive, indelible sense of dread. Each segment is a visual marvel, filmed using meticulously crafted sets with vibrant, popping backdrops, adding up to a dreamy and ethereal experience.

Cuadecuc-Vampir (dir. Pere Portabella, 1970)

This otherworldly piece of surrealism from Spanish experimentalist Portabella was cobbled together using documentary footage shot during the making of Jesus Franco's innocuous Count Dracula. Using high contrast b&w film stock and plenty of gothic imagery (making it somewhat of a distant cousin to Dreyer's Vampyr), Portabella sketches his own haunted version of the Dracula story, layering it with his unique sense of humor to create something strikingly original.

Tourist Trap (dir. David Schmoeller, 1979)

One of the weirder horror movies you're likely to come across. I saw this when I was younger and it's stayed with me ever since due to the completely offbeat yet undeniably creepy subject matter (involving lifelike mannequins) and the deranged, maniacal performance Chuck Connors gives. The story involves a group of teens who go looking for a missing friend and stumble upon a strange museum owned by Connors. A disturbed little sleeper of a movie.

Scarecrows (dir. William Wesley, 1988)

Criminally underappreciated 80's classic is a claustrophobic and tense-filled exercise in using mood and ambiguity to evoke terror instead of hollow shocks and gore. The excellent production values are evident in every shot, especially those where the camera slowly pans in on the uber-creepy scarecrows placidly hitched to their stakes. Look closely...are those damn things breathing? Well crafted and worth seeking out.

Ghostwatch (dir. Lesley Manning, 1992)

This infamous BBC production caused quite a stir when it hit British airwaves and fooled the country in 1992. Essentially a 90 minute scripted drama posing as a documentary special investigating a supposedly haunted house, Ghostwatch utilized well known BBC personalities playing themselves to pull the rug out from under its viewers with a grisly denouement, sparking controversy and even causing post-traumatic stress disorder in some children, subsequently leading to a decade-long ban on the program. Even if knowing it's all fake takes some of the juice out of the experience, this is still an effective and prescient artifact from a time when audiences were a little more naive, and bit just a little harder.

Regarde La Mer (See the Sea) (dir. Francois Ozon, 1997)

This superb little shocker from Frenchman Ozon has been referred to as Rohmer by way of Hitchcock, which is about as good a description as I can imagine. Sasha Hails stars as a young mother taking care of her baby at a beautiful seaside home while her husband is away on business. A mysterious female hiker knocks on the door one day asking to setup her tent for a few days, and what develops after is by turns nefarious, poetic and uncompromising. You'll never look at your toothbrush the same way again.

Silent Hill (dir. Christophe Gans, 2006)

Unfairly maligned upon its theatrical release, Silent Hill was pigeonholed by critics as just another lousy video game adaptation, which it most definitely is not. What it is however is a masterpiece of phantasmagorical imagery and art design that is destined to be rediscovered by future film lovers as an authentically haunting aesthetic experience. Set in a world saturated with fog where ash falls from the heavens like snow and ominous, piercing alarms sound off at a whim signifying something very bad, Silent Hill crafts a masterful, borderline transcendent experience that climaxes with a deliriously extravagant Grand Guignol sequence that few horror movies would have the stones or originality to pull off. And if it occasionally falls into the genre trappings of stock dialogue and plot developments, we can forgive Silent Hill for simply providing us with a world this fully realized and immersive.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Haze (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005)

One word you will occasionally hear when someone describes a movie is "claustrophobic". Sometimes this can refer to action that is contained to few characters in unsettlingly intimate living quarters (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to cite a recently seen example), other times it can obviously mean when a character is trapped in a tiny space, unable to move (scenes in Spoorloos, Kill Bill 2 etc.). And then you have a movie like Haze, which so fully embodies the term and so effectively paints the essence of claustrophobia in all its frozen terror and anxiety-ridden glory, that the horrors seep through the screen and fully into the psyche of the viewer to such effect as to make one feel worthy of an Olympic medal for having simply endured it.

The movie opens up thrusting the viewer immediately into the muck. Our unnamed protagonist (played by director Tsukamoto) awakens in darkness. Now whereas most movies in a scene like this would give our hero something, a lighter or match, to slightly illuminate the screen and provide something of a visual context for both the character and viewer, Haze is satisfied with a momentary patch of light, giving us a brief glimpse at our guys wide, terror-filled eyes before plunging him back into a world of complete darkness, his heavy panting and uneasy sounds saying more than any words could. He feels his way around the narrow corridors of this dark and mysterious place with his limbs as best he can, stumbling into barbed wire and other little traps, inadvertently setting himself up in some extremely cringe-worthy situations (the worst involving teeth and pipes) as he searches for anything at all that will make sense out of the predicament he has found himself in.

If it is not a wholly original concept, the execution is anything but stale. Tsukamoto's digital photography is unrelenting. The first half of the movie (which only runs about 45 minutes total), is primarily filmed in grainy, visceral closeups in near complete darkness. You can never really be sure exactly what you are looking at at any given time. It is disconcerting for sure and frequently frustrating, but make no mistake, Tsukamoto knows exactly what he's doing and his unwillingness to give the audience any piece of tiny freedom or context that our hero is not given feels fresh and admirable in a very committed, mind warping way. To give away much more of the "plot" would be a crime, but I will say that our hero finds that he is not the only person trapped in this place, and efforts to find out exactly what is going on and why give the second half of Haze its shape and focus.

Shinya Tsukamoto is probably best known for his cult series of Tetsuo films, none of which have been seen by me (I am anxious to see them now). If Haze is any indication at all, Tsukamoto has that distinct ability to craft not only a movie (a very good one at that) but an experience entirely unto itself. The most remarkable thing about Haze is that as immediate and intense, as in your face and unyielding as this material is, it still finds the perfect blend of poignancy and meditation on which to end, and it doesn't for even a second feel manipulative in the least. In fact, for all of the darkness and misery experienced, for all of the pain and anxiety felt, it probably shouldn't have ended any other way.