Monday, October 27, 2008
Scary movies for smart people
Holiday wishes from Norman and Mom!
Yes, it's that time of year again - the time when "Scariest Movies of All Time" lists proliferate in all manner of media (the Globe just posted a particularly lame one). So far, however, I've never seen a "Scariest Élitist Movies of All Time" list, so I thought I'd leap into the gap, with a list of movies that not only make you jump but make you think, too. Because the thing is, horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and fearless experimentation. So don't worry, you won't find any multiplex cheese on this list - no Amityville Horror or The Blob - and of course you won't find any bad American remakes of foreign classics. (When in doubt with horror movies, always see the foreign original!)
So without further ado, and working chronologically:
Cat People (1942) - recently released on DVD, this thriller (produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur) is devoted entirely to indirection and poetic mood. Simone Simone is some sort of Serbian lesbian/were-woman who's transformed into a panther when aroused - and hubby is an all-American innocent who can't understand why she's afraid to do the nasty. I know, I know - killer pussy; it sounds ridiculous (and it is), but the panther attacks (see YouTube above) - particularly the one in which the beast slinks through the shimmering shadows around an abandoned pool - are masterpieces of suggested menace. The first of a short run of Lewton classics, including I Walked with a Zombie and Bedlam. (Warning: be sure to avoid the laughable 80's remake.)
Dead of Night (1945) - the scares found here feel a bit prim today (and there's one weak attempt at "comic relief"), but the format - a kind of omnibus of tales of terror - was very influential, and its circular dream structure was both the first, and probably the best, of its kind. Two Twilight Zone episodes - as well as the Final Destination movies - were drawn from its (superior) vignettes, but it's the final episode, about a dummy that slowly drives its ventriloquist mad (Michael Redgrave, in YouTube above), that remains hauntingly effective.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's only directorial effort, this very strange thriller-melodrama isn't so much scary as ominously hypnotic. Robert Mitchum makes a convincingly murderous "preacher" who's after some buried treasure - and his night-time pursuit of the children (above) who know its secret is probably the longest, and most dreamily beautiful piece of surrealism in American cinema.
Les Diaboliques (1955) - Leave it to the French to work out the logic of the thriller to the nth degree; Henri-Georges Clouzot's gritty shocker introduced the "twist ending" that would eventually become cinema's standard. But even before that final scene, the movie is weirdly compelling in its sordid way, with little digressions into melodrama and even (seemingly) the supernatural. Other notable films by Clouzot: the grimly cynical Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la Peur.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) - did we mention surrealism? Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju's macabre, poetic classic all but defines it. The repellent story is about a mad doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who surgically removes the faces of captured girls to replace the ravaged one of his daughter (Edith Scob); the visuals, however, are all about haunting juxtaposition and dream logic. The image of Scob's glittering eyes moving behind their mask is alone unforgettable (as are the calmly-filmed surgical sequences, it's only fair to warn you).
Psycho (1960) - yes, I know you've seen it, but it's the source of an incredible number of pop tropes - the psychotic slasher, the out-of-the-blue murder (above), the twistedly "innocent" (and probably gay) hero/villain, the cheap-o production design and even such touches as Bernard Herrmann's "slashing" strings have all become embedded in the culture. But the movie also, believe it or not, has bizarrely tragic undercurrents, and formally, it fascinates for the way in which Hitchcock set up one of his standard templates, then ripped away its surface to reveal the frightening impulses raging beneath. Related: Vertigo, The Birds, the weirdly comic Frenzy, and Michael Powell's florid companion piece, Peeping Tom.
The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton's take on the The Turn of the Screw is not just the most literate horror movie ever made, it's one of the most literate movies ever made, period. Deborah Kerr is perfection as the sexually-repressed governess who may (or may not) be seeing ghosts, and her preternaturally mature charges may (or may not) be possessed. The movie lacks suspense, but makes up for it with the sheer beauty of its production, the subtle craft of its dialogue, and the fact that every appearance of the ghosts (above) is an imaginative tour de force.
Don't Look Now (1973) - Nicolas Roeg's fragmented film can feel very self-indulgent - especially during some of its fractured, improvised scenes. But stick with it: the final sequence makes up for everything with both a satisfying scare and a strangely persuasive suggestion regarding the interpolation of past and present. Plus the movie features Julie Christie naked (alas, it features Donald Sutherland naked, too).
The Shining (1980) - The Divine Stanley's one foray into pure horror sags in the middle, and never really manages to beef up Stephen King's superificial original with any real depth, but its banal, brightly-lit look, its atmosphere of floating dread, and especially its many chase sequences remain indelible. True, Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance can seem either genuinely horrifying or artistically horrifying, depending on the day I see it. But once Kubrick drops his pretensions and gets down to business in the last act, he shows he's still got his mass-market chops.
The Vanishing (1988) - George Sluizer's deeply disturbing "thriller" follows both a young man obsessed with solving his girlfriend's disappearance and a local magistrate who has become similarly obsessed with his freedom to do evil. But Sluizer's real theme is the inevitability of death, and our poignant denial of same - a theme which his climax drives relentlessly home. WARNING - do not see the American remake (even though it was helmed by Sluizer!).
Cube (1997) - Far from perfect, this chilling Canadian cheapie (above) nevertheless operates as both a visually elegant shocker and a genuine brainteaser. Seven total strangers awaken to find themselves trapped in a maze of cubes, each filled with gruesomely deadly booby-traps, and slowly realize they're human guinea pigs in some enormous survival experiment. Which means there must be a means of escape. One of those satisfying movies in which plot secrets are revealed just as you, too, figure them out.
Funny Games (1997 and 2007) - Michael Haneke's doubly-filmed provocation (this time the "American remake" is a shot-by-shot reproduction; a key sequence in the original is above) is for sensitive audiences perhaps the most gruelingly horrific movie ever made, even though none of its violence ever appears on the screen. It's essentially the standard psychos-torture-innocent-victims-in-a-lonely-place set-up, only reversed to turn all the punishment on the audience itself. All thrills, indeed every form of catharsis is deliberately frustrated in one brilliant gambit after another - and weirdly, even when the movie goes all meta on us, it doesn't lose its overwhelming sense of dread. Horror movies are sometimes the most intellectual movies around, and this is among the most challenging.
Cure (1997) - much has been made of "Japanese horror" in recent years (Ring, The Grudge, and especially the skin-crawling Audition), but Cure, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's hauntingly oblique meditation on a kind of viral psychosis, remains the subtle avatar of the form. The final scene alone is a masterpiece of offhand horrific suggestion. Related films: Pulse, Bright Future.
Irréversible (2002) - Gaspar Noe's X-rated reversed-time narrative feels like Memento gone to hell; at times it's as unwatchable as Saw, but it's never merely torture porn. Instead, it's got quite the stern intellectual spine. Not for the sexually faint-of-heart, however; this film pushes horror's conventional obsession with sexual disgust to its limit - it even opens with a brutal murder in the depths of a sex club called "Rectum." At least there won't be an American remake.