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Oh, the Horror

September 16, 2009
10 Standouts from a Criminally Overlooked Genre

By Pancake

I think that horror movies get kind of a bad rap.  Sure, there are a lot of really terrible ones out there – very few of them get by me, don’t you know – but there are some really great films that get dismissed or overlooked by virtue of being classified as members of this maligned genre.  Case in point, as a general rule, horror movies tend not to be screened for critics prior to their release date.  Why shouldn’t a horror film be beholden to the same criteria as any other when offered up for the public’s consumption? I find it easier to rattle off the names of films that have contributed to Horror’s bad reputation, but I would like to turn our focus towards the positive and champion the movies that I love – and that I think you may like too.  For the sake of brevity, I won’t go too in depth – but please feel free to leave comments and suggestions about your favorites that may or may not be mentioned here.

Now, let us have a look at the things that go bump in the theater, shall we?

Night of the Living Dead – George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie thriller is recognized as a classic and has been hugely influential in other horror films.  It also happens to be responsible for my introduction to and undying love for the zombie genre.  Using a claustrophobic setting to its advantage, the majority of the film transpires in an abandoned farm house in which several strangers seek refuge from an all-out zombie attack.  Steady pacing, horrifyingly plausible make-up effects and an outstanding lead performance by Duane Jones all contribute to the tension of this excellent film.

The Exorcist – based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name, this was made in 1973 and directed by William Friedkin.  In a nutshell, The Exorcist depicts the demonic possession of a 12 year old girl as well as the eventual exorcism of the mal-intended spirit.  The possession of which I speak is shown in graphic, unsettling detail and let me assure you, it is not pretty.  Understandably, this movie terrified me when I first saw it at age 10 (I was at a slumber party and made it as far as Reagan urinating on the carpet before I decided to spend the rest of the party hiding in the bathtub.  I spent the better part of this year living in fear that this would happen to me.)  And again when I last saw it – during the theatrical re-release in 2000.  This version included the “spider-walk” scene that was removed from the 1973 print – I daresay that I had nightmares about this for three years.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – this 1974 film by Tobe Hooper is entirely fictional, though it is one of the more hauntingly realistic looking films in this genre I have seen.  Greasy, is a word that comes to mind to describe this cinematic telling of a group of people terrorized by a masked antagonist (and his deranged family) another word to describe it?  Scary.  So scary.  As is popular with the genre, a Final Girl remains though you would have to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for her to have perished.

The Shining – based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name and directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980 – this remains to be one of the most frightening and disturbing films about isolation, madness and hauntings I have ever seen – a must to watch, if you haven’t already.

An American Werewolf in London – released in 1981 and directed by John Landis, this cult classic still holds up.  In fact, I would argue that the special effects are far more powerful and engaging than anything rendered in CG to date (though I am giddy over the prospect of 2010’s upcoming The Wolfman, if the film trailer is anything to go by, it’s going to be fantastic.).  A great performance by Griffin Dunne provides some welcome humor – the cream in Horror’s coffee, if you will.

The Thing – John Carpenter’s 1982 film is essentially about an Antarctic research team that becomes infiltrated by an extraterrestrial being, a life-form which invades and imitates the body of it’s host.  Paranoia among the group ensues as the film progresses, adding to the tension already existing by the isolation of the sparse location and a fantastic score by Ennio Morricone.  I didn’t even mention the mutating monster, but let me say – it is a startling visual treat.

Terror at the Opera – Dario Argento s’ 1987 film was not well received by the critics, but it remains one of my favorites of his.  It’s probably cooler to say that Suspiria is my favorite, but I can’t.  Argento’s skillful use of color, composition and innovative camera work – plus the curse of Macbeth – make it easy to overlook some of the truly unfortunate dubbing.  Stabby good times.

Man Bites Dog – Directed by Remy Belvaux and released in 1992, this film was shot in black and white, documentary style – paving the way for the likes of Blair Witch and Cloverfield.  Man Bites Dog follows a serial killer as he goes about his day – visiting friends, playing the piano, enjoying fine dining and murdering people.  As far as black comedies go, this movie is as dark and funny as they come.

Gingersnaps – a Canadian werewolf tale directed by John Fawcett and released in 2000, this film uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for female puberty/sexual maturity to hilarious and disturbing effect.  Solid performances by Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabelle as the Fitzgerald sisters enhance this new take on an age-old theme and I am pleased to say that in spite of the low-budget looking special effects, the movie brings something fresh to the table – proof that you don’t require an enormous, bloated budget to convincingly tell a great story.

Let the Right One In – directed by Tomas Alfredson and released in 2008 – this Swedish vampire film is one of the best things I saw last year.  A clever, beautiful and thought-provoking take on a very popular genre – it smacks it, flips it and then rubs it down for good measure.  Though they hardly compare, Twilight gets served six days from Sunday.

Honorable mention:   Drag Me to Hell – 2009 directed by Sam Raimi.  A welcome return to the things that I loved about his Evil Dead films.  Good times.

It is inevitable in making this list that I have left out many of my other favorites, as well as yours – please make use of our comments section to rectify this.


9 Responses to “ Oh, the Horror ”

  1. Nat on September 16, 2009 at 8:33 am

    The Thing: Wilford Brimley goes batshit insane. Awesome ensues.

    The Shining: Saw it when I was 10; still remember Sara explaining that Jack Nicholson would have to travel all the way from Colorado to get me, so it probably wasn’t worth it to him.

    Altered States: Wouldn’t recommend getting drunk while watching this, and if you do, make absolutely certain you don’t pass out and wake up at the ape-man scene…brrr…

    Them!: Still remember Mom explaining to me that the ants would have to come all the way from California to get me, so it probably wasn’t worth it to Them!

    Jurassic Park: I kept an ever-vigilant watch on my closet for two straight months–because when the raptors come, clearly that’s where they’re coming from.

    Alien: Had to watch it with the sound off the first few times.

    Something Wicked This Way Comes: Still remember Dad asking who the Hell Mr. Dark is supposed to be.

  2. pancake on September 16, 2009 at 9:06 am

    i watched The Thing for the first time last year for Halloween Dinner Party, it was fantastic. I can’t believe I have lived so long without it.
    OOOoooOOO – I almost included Alien – that movie was terrifying. And I agree with you about Jurassic Park – they totally live in the closet and they thirst for Almirall blood. and SWTWC – creepy, creepy. I will check out Them! and Altered States.

    I am thinking of buying Sleepy Hollow this year (I get it from Netflix every fall season and watch it on repeat) and I would love to get my hands on the Disney version – would you recommend Ebay?

  3. Nat on September 16, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Oh yeah–and am currently watching Let the Right One in. Enjoying it so far!

  4. pancake on September 16, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Nat – we must discuss that movie when you finish it!

    Sara – I loved that! Now I want Brian and I to dress up as Jack and Wendy for Halloween!

  5. Sara on September 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    As well you should!

  6. Jackson on September 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    great list pancake! killer classics and some recent gems indeed. I’m ashamed to admit i’ve not seen Man Bites Dog…going on my to-do list right now.

  7. CJ on September 17, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Good job PC. I’ve only seen The Shining and it freaked my freak. I’m not a horror girl as you know…probably due to the time I walked into the living room after waking up around 11 p.m. I was 8 years old and my dad was watching a movie. I asked if I could watch. He said no. I looked a the TV and asked again. At that moment, the clown jumped out from behind the little boy’s bed and attacked him. Poltergeist. I dropped to the floor sweating and crying and was a different girl from that day forward.