Saturday, October 02, 2010

Five Awesome Horror Films

There is something quite edifying about watching a well made horror flic. A good scream lubricates the gears, keeps the psyche in working order. In suspending disbelief we leave the legislations of cruel gravity and free float in the phantasmagoria of the primordial human fundament of existential fear. I actually love the whole horror genre -- in the right measure -- and if you've been reading this blog for any length of time you are probably aware of my pet theory that eras of great crisis become hothouses for the development of awesome horror films. The Exorcist -- arguably the second best horror film ever -- was incubated in the era of Watergate, during a period of great national stress. One could make the argument that that entire film was, in fact, an amazingly successful collective exorcism. Fer realsies.

The Reagan era -- one of massive deficits -- was the Golden Age of horror, siring excessive sequels to such franchises as Friday the Thirteenth, the Halloweens and the various nightmares on Elm Street (Averted Gaze). How Steven King and Clive Barker must have prospered during that time (Exaggerated cough suggesting feigned detachment).

Similarly, this financial crisis -- the worst since the Great Depression -- has resulted in vampire and zombie gorefests. "Fang banger" ought to be added to the OED. Even CW's Supernatural -- a show that doesn't get nearly enough good press -- is firing on all cylanders.

We are now October deep in this financial crisis, the month of Halloween, the season of the witch. Keeping with that theme, here are 5 awesome horror films:

5. Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural The special effects here are amateurish. Let's get that out of the way at the outset. But the story is enough to set ones hair on end. As Kindertrauma blog relays, "Archetypal creatures; Beast men, grizzled hags and eerie giggling munchkins abound in this shoe-string budgeted, Southern gothic fairy tale obsessed with the destruction of innocence. "

No truer words ahev been written. In NYC Channel 9 used to run this every Halloween and I miss the thing. It is an insanely strange story, born of the Iranian hostage crisis and our collective psychic traumas. The young, innocent Lila Lee is stalked and brought low by the Lemora, a Vampiric predator in the eerie southern gothic town of Astaroth. The process could just as easily be called a seduction. This pre-True Blood movie has none of the irony or sexiness that passes for horror today. It is just thoroughly, breathtakingly creepy. I don't know if I'd even call it horror; I just don't know how to classify it. And why is this not broadcast in its entirety every Halloween on some network? Hello?

4. The Monster Club. The whole is not as great as the sum of its parts in this case (sorry, Euclid). The Monster Club is a sort of variety show -- part musical interludes, part comedy, part short tales of the supernatural. It is the last tale, one of zombies, that is truly outstanding. The story is by a very strange man improbably named R. Chetwynd Hayes.

A director, searching for an ideal film location, comes across a town not on any map. Loughville. What goes on there is despicable. And brilliant. (Part 1, Part 2, The Grusome Conclusion)

3. Suspiria. Filmmaker Dario Argento's masterpiece -- although I wouldn't throw L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970) out of the DVD player either. Rotten Tomatoes summarizes Suspiria -- even the name sounds sinister -- as thus, "A newcomer to a fancy ballet academy gradually comes to realize that the staff of the school are actually a coven of witches bent on chaos and destruction." Fer realsies; and that aint the half of it.

The surfaces are disturbingly overstylized. The women are astonishingly beautiful. The colors are vivid. The soundtrack is on a little too high. It is all edginess and nerves. So when Argento delivers the shock -- the money shot in horror -- it is especially jarring; abrupt. Steven King once said during the filming of The Shining that Stanley Kubrick must hate his audience because he's intentionally trying to hurt them with the intense up-close camera angles of the violence (And just what was up with that fellating bunny?). Even more alarmingly, Dario Argento appears to be romantically in love with the violence and the gore which he depicts -- and there is no other way to describe it -- so lovingly.

2. The Exorcist. Remember the frightening upside-down spider-walk down the stairs? There is another scene in this movie that is horrific beyond words. It is probably the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life. From Filmsite:

Chris grabs her daughter's super-strong arm and tussles with her for control of the offending object. Regan punches her mother with a violent blow, sending her backwards across the bedroom floor. With her telekinetic power, Regan moves a chair against the door to bar the way of Sharon and others, and she sends a tall wooden bureau across the floor toward her mother. As a bloody-faced Regan sits on her bed, she spins her head backwards 180 degrees, threatening in a deep malevolent voice as she imitates Dennings' British accent (and his manner of death) to taunt Chris about his murder: 'Do you know what she did?'"

All the while Ellen Burstyn, lying on the floor from the blow, delivers a cry of pain -- a feral howl, really -- from someplace deep inside her. The point-of-view camera angle as the mother dodges the hurled wooden bureau is perhaps the most terrifying thing ever. Burstyn, in her compelling autobiography, repeatedly claimed that the set was haunted, spiritually unclean. Although I do not generally believe in such propositions, if such a thing were to happen, that would be the ideal location.

1. The Omen. The 1976 version, not the remake. At the risk of being Captain Obvious: this is the best horror film ever. Like you haven't heard that one before. IT'S BECAUSE IT'S TRUE, people. The Omen has all the elements: international power, the son of Devil with trinity symmetries; abandoned Italian cemeteries in the night; horribly disfigured Roman Catholic priests who scratch on blackboards; Gregory peck's imperious, stentorian voice; a soundtrack festooned with Latin (and songs called "The Demise of Mrs. Baylock" and, more ominously, "The Altar"); a deeply creepy child actor and, of course, an artful beheading by glass. No one will ever top this film in sheer evil -- but directors with iron in the gut are welcome to give it the old college try.

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