Friday, September 26, 2014

50 Horror Movies for Halloween (part 2)

The Abandoned

Here's part two of this series. These are not in any kind of order. They are unranked. These are all films I've enjoyed to one degree or another. The only common thread running through them is that few, if any, of these films has the broad recognition of general audiences or the kinds of people who make "best of" lists. And, hopefully they'll provide ideas for October.

One more word about this project, though: I'm not writing this for horror fans. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the first installment of this series who complained--well, commented is probably more like it--that he had seen almost everything I wrote about. That's fine. If you're a student of the genre, you've probably got a list of your own "deep cuts." My friend, Aaron Christensen, ran into the same thing when he was putting together Hidden Horror. Horror fans--myself included--tend to be obsessive.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori (1999, directed by Directed by Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min)

The second in the Korean Whispering Corridors series about a haunted girls school, this film is the best of the lot (though the other have much to offer to varying degrees). This is a fractured narrative that pieces its story together from the shards. This is often more adolescent lesbian coming of age love story than outright horror movie, but it hits the beats of the K-horror film like a pro in spite of that. This film as a whole understands that the horror idiom is a powerful mirror for all sorts of psychological states, and in the end, it's largely successful in communicating its psychosexual unease. Memento Mori diverges from the usual function of the horror movie in so far as it isn't trying to instill fear and revulsion in the audience (although it instills both of these emotions at select points during its running time). It is, rather, interested in sorrow, mourning, unrequited love, and the thousand natural shocks of adolescence. Melancholia is one of the traditional modes of gothic fiction (as opposed to "horror" fiction), and this is a deeply melancholy movie. The final shot of the film--a flashback--is as sad as they come.

Eyes of Fire

Eyes of Fire (1983, directed by Avery Crounse)

Once upon a time, this film seemed to be on the shelf of every mom and pop video store (remember them? I miss them). It seems to have been lost to time and neglect. This film follows a group of early American settlers as they're banished into the wild, where they are tormented by the spirits of the forest. This has an utterly unique feel to it: part early eighties horror film, part video-era experiment, part tall tale. This was filmed on a shoestring, and it sometimes shows, but it deploys its effects with aplomb. This is an early example of the kind of "wrong" geography that later shows up in films like The Blair Witch Project, and it's completely effective at disorienting its characters and the audience alike.

Linda Hayden in Blood on Satan's Claw

Blood on Satan's Claw (1971, directed by Piers Haggard)

The devil is among the children in this faux-Hammer gothic. This film plays like a conservative inversion of Witchfinder General, with the witchfinders on the side of right and with those crazy kids driving the world to hell in a hand basket. Blood on Satan's Claw is reactionary against New Age neo-paganism, given that it associates Britain's pre-Christian pagan past with devil worship (it's by no means the only film to do this). This is as moody and atmospheric as any late sixties British Gothic, though the shadow of the Manson family hangs heavy over the proceedings. There's no namby pammby ambiguity about its central horror, either. The devil is real and makes an appearance late in the film. Tigon Films, this film's producers, were unusually impoverished as the mini-Hammer wannabes go, so this doesn't have the resources to pull off some of its ambitions, but it's a gorgeous film to watch most of the time (particularly when comely coven leader Linda Hayden is on screen--Frida Kahlo eyebrow and all) and it builds up a potent head of steam as it moves toward a showdown between the forces of right and goodness who have armed themselves with a gigantic holy avenger sword and the evil one himself.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974, directed by Jorge Grau)

Burdened with a Babel of alternate titles, this is one of the smartest of the European imitators of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Unlike some of its contemporaries, it plugged into that film's social critique over and above its zombie apocalypse, crossing Romero with Ibsen's Enemy of the People to produce a strident environmental film. For all that, it doesn't skimp on the gore. It transplants the zombie apocalypse to an idyllic rural England, which lends the film a Gothic ambiance even as the British Gothic began to mutate into gritty contemporary horror films during the next decade. Director Jorge Grau, a refugee from Franco's Spain, has a withering view of authority and authoritarianism in this film.

Longer review here.

Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls

The Island of Lost Souls (1932, directed by Erle C. Kenton)

It seems inconceivable that this film, the best film version of H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, should have fallen into semi-obscurity, but that's what unavailability will do for a film. Absent from home video for over a decade until Criterion picked it up on DVD in 2011, it's deserving of the Criterion imprint, with a real aura of depravity and scenes of dreamlike horror. The chant of the Keeper of the Law is iconic, The racial politics remain uncomfortable, with its critique of colonialism and fear of miscegenation. Charles Laughton is more imp than mad scientist in one of his best roles of the 1930s. This film took full advantage of the lax standards of the pre-Code era. "Are we not men?"

Paul Naschy in The Mark of the Wolfman (aka Frankenstein's Blood Terror)

The Mark of the Wolfman (aka: Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, 1968, directed by Enrique Eguiluz)

The first of Paul Naschy's werewolf movies, this is a full-dress Gothic in the mode of Hammer and Bava, including beautiful 70mm (!!!) cinematography. This is a mishmash of horror tropes, and while many of Naschy's films are a complete mess, this one manages to integrate its various influences into something approaching coherence. Its reliance on pastiche feeds a kind of dream logic as Naschy's poor, doomed werewolf is pitted against a pair of vampires. The whole thing plays as if Terence Fisher and Mario Bava had had their genes spliced and their mutant progeny had turned its attention on the Universal-style monster rally. Some scenes in this film look to be taken straight from paintings by Basil Gogos.

Longer review here.

The Abandoned

The Abandoned (2006, directed by Nacho Cerdà)

One of the most frightening of the ghost movies of the 2000s, this film finds two people trapped in a haunted house where they come face to face with...themselves? This mines dark legends about doppelgangers and creates another of those weird pocket universes where geography doubles back on itself. There's a deep sense of confinement in this film as our two protagonists try to figure out their situation. As ghost stories go, this one lays the lumber harder than most. Many ghost stories prefer to insinuate; not this one. It adds a dollop of gore to go with its mindfuck. This has a pig scene worthy of Clive Barker.

The Curse of the Crying Woman

The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963, directed by Rafael Baledón)

The Llorona is a Latin American variant of the banshee, a female spirit weeping for her lost children, a symbol of the suffering of women. There's a touch of misogyny in the way this transforms the Llorona into a vengeful ghost. There's also outright thievery going on in this film, as it swipes scenes and shot compositions wholesale from Mario Bava. For all that, this is an entertaining generational Gothic in which a young woman goes to live with her aunt only to discover that she's trying to resurrect the power of the Llorona in order to commit horrible murders. And while it's at second hand, this has oodles of mood. Like many Mexican horror movies of this vintage, this is a mix and match affair, which grants the whole thing a demented kind of pulp vitality.

The Man Who Laughs (1928, directed by Paul Leni)

More famous for its pop culture progeny (Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson based The Joker off the title character in this film) than for its actual qualities as a film, The Man Who Laughs is one of the glories of the late silent period. It's one of the first films to crystallize the tropes of the Universal horrors that would follow a few years later. Conrad Veidt gives one of his best performances as Gwynplaine, the son of a disgraced nobleman whose face has been carved with a permanent grin. Gwynplaine isn't a monster even though he falls into the category of misunderstood outsider and unrequited lover. It's the world around him that's monstrous. A film of rich visual textures and creative cinematography, this is a film that ought to be spoken of in the same breath as The Phantom of the Opera. Indeed, Chaney was scheduled to have played Gwynplaine before being forced to bow out, and the make-up job is worthy of him. I won't say that Chaney wouldn't have equaled Veidt in the role--who can say such things?--but I wouldn't trade Veidt for anyone.

Burn, Witch, Burn (aka: Night of the Eagle, 1962, directed by Sidney Hayers)

The second and best of the three film versions of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife finds reason and unreason locked in mortal combat as skeptical professor Peter Wyngarde discovers black magic afoot in his departmental politics. Worse, his own wife is a practicing witch. This film presents a calm, reasonable world and then knocks the planks of reason from under it, revealing utter chaos beneath. Filmed in a striking expressionist style, this is an effective slow burner in the mold of Val Lewton. This insinuates rather than bludgeons. Its gender politics are a time capsule of the mid-20th century, which is a little disappointing even though they're central to the narrative. Regarding the film's main thesis, I can only approve of its embrace of skepticism. Oh, it plays the notes of the supernatural horror movie, sure, but when Norman backs against the blackboard, he doesn't erase his own skepticism. He only obscures it for a while. The film closes on the question: "Do you believe?" I know my answer.

Longer review here.

That's enough for today. Check back (hopefully tomorrow) for ten more films. Halloween is coming soon.

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