Thursday, October 30, 2014

Once More, With Feeling: The Smartest Horror Movies Ever Made

Every October, people begin asking for a replay of a Hub Review tradition - our list of "scary movies for smart people."  This is a bit last minute, of course, but there still might be time for you to download one of these from somewhere - so I've once more resurrected the litany: here are the Hub Review's Hints for a Highbrow Hallowe'en - the Smartest Horror Movies Ever Made.

Now I know what you're thinking - "highbrow"???  That word and "Hallowe'en" are two words you rarely see in close proximity.

I'm not sure why, however, because  horror movies have often been about intellectual challenge and experimentation. Indeed, the fresh tropes you find in the best of them often shape, and eventually become staples of, mainstream culture.

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!)  What we have here is cherce, as Spencer Tracy might say - movies that run the gamut from a pleasant shudder to a full-bore freak-out, but which always have a compelling intellectual component.

So without further ado, and working more or less chronologically:

Cat People (1942) - Produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, this thriller kick-started an entire series devoted to indirection and poetic mood. Simone Simone is some sort of Serbian lesbian/were-woman who turns 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 - killer pussy! It sounds ridiculous (and it is), but the panther attacks - particularly the one in which the beast slinks through the shimmering shadows around a swimming pool, above - are masterpieces of suggested menace. Also noteworthy among the Lewton classics: 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 prim today (and there's one weak attempt at "comic relief"), but the format - an 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, 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 "double twist" that would eventually become cinema's standard finale. But even before that closing shock, 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?  Georges Franju's morbidly 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, left); the visuals outside the operating room, 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, 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 touchstones of 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 romantic-thriller templates, then ripped away its surface to reveal the frightening impulses raging beneath. Related examples of this director's brand of erotic apocalypse: Vertigo, The Birds, the final coming-to-terms of Frenzy, and Michael Powell's florid companion piece, Peeping Tom.

The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton's take on 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 repressed governess who may (or may not) be seeing ghosts, and whose preternaturally mature charges may (or may not) be possessed. The movie lacks suspense (the scene above is a rare exception to that rule), but makes up for it with the sheer beauty of its production design, the subtle craft of its dialogue, the superb acting even from the children, and the fact that every appearance of the ghosts is a poetic tour de force.

Don't Look Now (1973) - Nicolas Roeg's fragmented film can feel very self-indulgent - especially during its clearly-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 (one piece of the puzzle, above). 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 (if you don't count Clockwork Orange) sags in the middle, and never really manages to beef up Stephen King's superificial original with any depth, but its banal, brightly-lit look, its atmosphere of de-stabilized, floating dread, and especially its many chase sequences remain indelible. True, Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance can seem either genuinely, 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 his girlfriend's disappearance and a local magistrate who has become similarly obsessed with the freedom to do evil. The film is a fiendishly intricate meditation on moral psychology, in which almost every shot "counts," and the acting is consistently subtle. But in the end, Sluizer's deepest theme is the inevitability of death, and our poignant denial of same - a theme which his climax drives relentlessly home.  Be warned, though - this film's finale is not easily shaken off.  Oh, another warning - do not see the American remake (even though it was helmed by Sluizer!).

Cube (1997) - Far from perfect, this chilling Canadian cheapie (opening gambit 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; they 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 slightly superior original is above) is for sensitive audiences perhaps the most grueling movie ever made, even though none of its violence ever appears on the screen. It's essentially the standard victims-in-a-lonely-place set-up, only this time the premises of genre are ruthlessly subverted and 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; we remain in its grip - perhaps because we sense it has also captured something of the amoral millennial zeitgeist. 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" over the past decade (Ring, The Grudge, and especially the skin-crawling Audition), but the early 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 an offhand master-stroke of 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, seemingly endless murder in the depths of a sex club called "Rectum." Well, at least there won't be an American remake.

Also recommended, in case you've seen all these -

Ring - Japanese original only! Another case in which crude, cheap-o production design does wonders for the dumb, pulpy content.

The Exorcist - preferably not the Director's Cut (in general, the ruthless studio cut is always superior to the director's cut) - but if you must, you must. Either way, this enormous hit remains memorable for Ellen Burstyn's performance, a generally intense atmosphere, and a literally soul-freezing climax.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre - still packs a wallop, even in the days of Saw and Hostel, because it seems to tap into something obsessive in its depiction of Leatherface and his cannibal family.  Plus it boasts one of the most horrific surprises in all cinema, when dear old grandpa "wakes up."

Night of the Living Dead - Republicans rise from the grave to munch on Democrats in George Romero's gruesome 1968 cheapie, which features solid (white) citizens gorging themselves on entrails, and may count as the first nihilistic satire of American racism.  Indeed, just about every trope of the millennial zombie craze found its first form in this crude classic. (Full movie above.)

Bird with the Crystal Plumage - the movie that put Dario Argento and the "giallo" on the map, it pulses with an undertow of genuine compulsion, and makes explicit the genre's conflation of violence and sex in scenes that themselves became fetishes for Argento's fans. The film also stamps the basic template for this director's entire body of work - a script burdened by bad acting (and only barely comprehensible anyway) is occasionally transformed by stretches of pure stylistic (and sadistic) bravura.  An even crazier, but still more visually inspired, offering from the same director: Suspiria.

The Masque of the Red Death - the best, and certainly most ambitious, of Roger Corman's Poe series from the 60's, it features literately fruity dialogue, a discombobulated (but amusing) moral debate, re-purposed sets from Becket, and, of course, thick slices of ham from Vincent Price, served with relish to Paul McCartney's then-girlfriend, Jane Asher.

Rosemary's Baby - more a study in isolation - or even black comedy - than a genuine horror film, this Polanski masterpiece focuses, like much of his work, on how deep evil can work its will from behind the civilized screen of society. Related: the more hallucinatory Repulsion, his first great exploration of claustrophobia, which makes superb use not only of the lovely Catherine Deneuve, but also the first of the subtly-designed apartments which would permeate his later films.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (above) - this haunting piece of ghoulish whimsy, also from Polanski, has its longeurs, but it's lavishly produced, features the suavest bloodsucker ever (Ferdy Mayne), and concludes with a brilliantly structured "dance of the vampires" (shot in almost a single take, above). And somehow the presence of the gorgeous, doomed Sharon Tate gives the production a terribly poignant resonance.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (above) - this minor classic from the 70's has proved incredibly influential, from its tongue-in-cheek tone to its gorgeous production design. With its concept of serial killing as a form of performance art, Phibes has also inspired to some degree everything from Silence of the Lambs to Saw. And weirdly enough, the movie may also count as a musical (with dance sequences!; full film above). Related: the equally witty, Bad-Shakespeare version, Theatre of Blood.  The sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, is occasionally as inspired in visual terms as its predecessor, but is also choppier and more pointlessly vicious.

Alien - Ridley Scott's breakthrough, this subtly-acted creature feature is made compelling (like Phibes, and the forgotten Black Sunday) via its unforgettable production design. Watching it is like experiencing a drowsy piece of techno mumblecore suddenly torn open by gooey visions of sexual horror (the phallus dentatus at the core of the action was literally lubed with K-Y). Related: John Carpenter's best picture, the even-more-grotesque and memorably paranoid The Thing.

Finally - I have, I admit, ignored the great tradition of horror in the silent cinema.  Classics from this era include the seminal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (complete movie above), Vampyr, Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Man Who Laughs.  Silent film is always best experienced (IMHO) with live musical accompaniment - but with some of these classics, the imagery alone is enough to send a chill down your spine in the dead of night . . .

Which leads me to the one new entry in the list:

Shadow of the Vampire - perhaps more of an morbid Actor's Studio in-joke than a true hair-raiser, E. Elias Merhige's weird tribute to/satire of Murnau's Nosferatu features a wittily ghoulish performance from Willem Dafoe as silent actor Max Schreck (Murnau's Dracula, here re-imagined as an actual vampire) along with, alas, a typically preening turn from John Malkovich as Murnau himself.  You could argue that the movie (crafted as it is) remains muted in its impact until the final scene - but this does suddenly transform the script's art-as-a-vampirism motif into a potently horrifying statement.

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