Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: CORALINE (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning (voice), Teri Hatcher (voice)

PLOT:  A petulant little girl finds a parallel universe behind a hidden door in an old house, a world where her parents are more attentive, her neighbors more fascinating, and the entire universe seems set up to pamper and delight her; she can stay there forever, but of course there’s a catch.

Still from Coraline (2009)


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I attended a screening with a ten-year old and asked him if he thought the movie was “weird.”  His answer: “Nah, not unless you think every fantasy movie is weird.”  Smart lad.

COMMENTSCoraline is a welcome dark fantasy for children, although its themes of evil Doppelgänger moms, frightening buttons, and implied eye-gouging are too scary for very little ones.  Since it’s from Hanry Selick, the director of the borderline weird Nightmare Before Christmas, we suspect going in that the art direction and stop-motion animation will be the real stars.   Selick does not disappoint, shuffling the viewer through three distinct visual styles: the dingy earth tones of real life, a brightly colored, eye-popping fantasy world, and a sinister, disintegrating universe with an insect trapped in a spiderweb theme.  The storyline, and the unexpected scares once the movie shifts from childhood fantasy to childhood horror in the third act, make Coraline more than just eye candy for the kiddies.

Presented in theaters in 3-D, but the novelty doesn’t add anything significant to experience: I would have been just as happy to watch the same moving pictures tell the same story on an unabashedly flat screen.  Though there’s nothing really weird to be found here, Coraline, in the best children’s’ movie tradition, is worth a trip even for adult fans of fantasy and pure escapism.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Coraline discovers a Wonderland filled with surreal characters and dark implications that make a kid grow up quick… those who tough it out with this twisted, trippy adventure in impure imagination will only be the better for it.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

CAPSULE: THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Wes Craven

FEATURING: Bill Pullman, Zakes Mokae

PLOT: An anthropologist travels to Haiti in search of the legendary “zombie drug” and gets mixed up in voodoo and third world politics.

serpent_and_the_rainbow

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  There are three or four vivid hallucination/dream sequences in The Serpent and the Rainbow that are unique visual treats.  (The most unusual and striking vision is a disembodied zombie hand crawling into a bowl of soup).  Craven, however, uses only the canonical scare iconography—corpses and skulls, blood, snakes and spiders—which makes the scenes add up to standard, if well executed, nightmare sequences.  Coupled with an ordinary horror movie plot (although it’s disguised well for the first two-thirds of the film), Serpent is a film with some fantastic scenes, but not weird one.

COMMENTSSerpent is an above-average horror outing, although its ultimately a mild disappointment because the black magic premise has so much unrealized potential.  The voodoo milieu the civilized doctor encounters in Haiti is memorable and spooky; the setting is also unique in that it mixes witchcraft with politics by having the main villain be both a powerful warlock and an officer of Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s secret police.  In the end, unfortunately, Craven can’t figure out how to keep the momentum rolling into a proper climax to its interesting premise.  We end up with a formula horror finale where Zakes Mokae’s brilliantly sadistic Dargent Peytraud transforms into a poor man’s Freddy Kruger.  The eye-rolling climax comes complete with false deaths, catch phrases, an ironic comeuppance, and other silliness. 

The movie was adapted from a memoir of the same name by real-life Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who actually went to Haiti to investigate the real zombie drug.  To make this serious scientific book into a horror movie seems a bit like adapting “A Brief History of Time” as a space opera.  Davis called the film “one of the worst Hollywood movies in history”; it’s not nearly that bad (in fact, it’s pretty good), but his frustration is understandable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things speed towards an ‘Omen’ finale, via some stunning dream sequences. People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just Special Effects all the time.” – Desson Howe, Washington Post

CAPSULE: HABIT (1996)

Recommended

DIRECTED BYLarry Fessenden

FEATURING: Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider

PLOT: Slacker and (barely) functional alcoholic Sam—still smarting from the habit

recent loss of his father and separation from his live-in girlfriend—finds his health growing worse and worse as he gets more and more involved with a mysterious beautiful woman he meets at a Greenwich Avenue Halloween party.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Critics didn’t perceive or acknowledge Habit as a “weird” movie, but it is at least a little weird. The movie is bifurcated into two parallel themes: essentially, it’s the story of Sam’s descent into alcoholic dementia, while ostensibly it’s a supernatural horror story. It contains a few surrealistic moments (nude women posing on the streets of New York, a clock moving backwards), a dream sequence that’s redolent of Rosemary’s Baby (complete with yacht), and tons of that spiritual sister of weirdness, ambiguity. Ultimately, the weirdest thing about Habit is the cinematography when Sam takes one of his frequent jaunts around Lower Manhattan: the camera bobs and weaves tipsily, causing us to see the bohemian atmosphere through Sam’s delirious eyes and giving the city a disorienting, Gothic cast. There’s enough odd atmosphere to make the film of interest to weirdophiles as well as indie fans, but it’s not relentlessly bizarre enough to be one of the weirdest films ever made.

COMMENTSHabit is a worthwhile effort, consistently interesting despite being relentlessly seedy and occasionally pretentious (in precisely the art/drama school dropout mold of its main characters). The horror elements are definitely secondary, but they synergize well with the dramatic aspect of Sam’s pathetic story. The literal narrative and the metaphorical aspects of the supernatural subplot merge so well, in fact, that the ambiguity about what “really” happens is simply irrelevant: either of the two possible interpretations is equally satisfactory, and entirely complementary.

It’s somewhat surprising that Meredith Snaider apparently never acted in front of a camera after this role. She did well in a difficult role, but more importantly, she has an intriguing beauty and a willingness to disrobe that should have brought her a lot more work in the film industry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes… ‘Habit’… in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals ‘Lost Highway’ as an exercise in search of a purpose.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]

“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franjou

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Georges Franjou

FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

PLOT:  The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident.  The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on.  When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
eyes_without_a_face

BACKGROUND:

  • Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
  • Director Georges Franjou has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
  • The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day.  It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The mask itself, the heart of the film.  There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint).  An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not

Original trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)

obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franjou’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real.  But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations.  The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what?  For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franjou is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.

COMMENTSEyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that Continue reading 5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

Ein Toter hing im Netz, AKA A Corpse Hangs in the Web [literal translation], It’s Hot in Paradise, and others   

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Böttger

FEATURING: Alex D’Arcy,  , & buxom German exhibitionists

PLOT:  A plane carrying team of eight dancing girls, along with one male and one female manager, crash into the ocean en route to Singapore.  There they find a cabin with the body of a man hanging in a giant spiderweb.  The lone male is bitten by a spider and turns into a spider-human hybrid, who then briefly terrorizes the girls at a party to celebrate their impending rescue after two men row ashore.



BACKGROUND:

  • With some brief nudity included, this German/Yugoslavian co-production was originally released in the US as a sexploitation feature under the title It’s Hot in Paradise.  After the nudity was clipped out, the movie was re-released under the present title and marketed as a horror film.
  • The movie was featured in the tenth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (show 1011).
  • Horrors of Spider Island is believed to be in the public domain.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The puppet-like evil spider, with it’s large, shiny, almost cute eyes and clawed hands.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDHorrors of Spider Island takes place in an alternate universe that’s nothing like our own.  The poor dubbing, including a mangled deep south accent, immediately takes us out of reality and makes suspension of disbelief impossible.  The plot is thin as a wire, made to hang chauvinistic male fantasies on, and often seems to be improvised on the spur of the moment.  Horrors of Spider Island already seems like a half-remembered bad dream, even as you’re still watching it.

4 minute clip from the film, including spider attack, courtesy of Something Weird video

COMMENTSHorrors of Spider Island is a movie that falls into the “so-bad-it’s-weird” category.  It’s quite obvious that the film was made with little Continue reading 4. HORRORS OF SPIDER ISLAND (1960)

CAPSULE: HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick, , Jennifer Jostyn, , , , Robert Mukes, Dennis Fimple,

PLOT: Four college kids are abducted by a backwoods maniac family.



WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff plot was too tissue-thin to support a movie, heavy metal musician turned debutante director Rob Zombie’s fleshed the film out with stylistic excess.  Home movies from inside the serial killers’ psyches, purposeless solarizations, classic drive-in intertitles, and clips of vintage B&W cheesecake constantly interrupt what action there is.  The effect is not to make the film weird, but to draw attention to the director– “I’m Rob Zombie, trash horror aficionado, and I’m making a movie!”–and make him seem weird.  It ends on a highly surrealistic note, but this is actually the weakest part of the movie.

COMMENTS:  Make no bones about it: House of 1000 Corpses is bad.  This movie is what happens when you take The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, drain out all the scary, and replace it with annoying.  Still, if Zombie had to fail, at least he failed bombastically rather than meekly.  If you took away the directorial flourishes from the movie and left only the plot, played straight, then this movie really would have been a nightmare (see the weirdly praised sequel The Devil’s Rejects).

The presence of trash film icons Sid Haig (Spider Baby) as the memorable sideshow Captain Spaulding (pictured) and Karen Black as the redneck matriarch adds some interest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As Rob Zombie’s name twitched over the seizure-inducing opening credits sequence of ‘House of 1000 Corpses’, one highly eager dude in the 1/4 filled theatre gamely raised his fists and shouted, ‘Rob Zombie Rules!’ As the closing credits rolled an unbearably slow 88 minutes later, I’ll bet that same guy contemplated raising his fists again and announcing, ‘I apologize for rushing to judgment.'” -Todd Levin, Film Threat

2. SILENT HILL (2006)

“Je me suis drapé dans ma conception du fantastique, et ce n’est pas celle de tout le monde.” – Christophe Gans

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Jodelle Ferland

PLOT:  After her adopted daughter’s sleepwalking problem turns hazardous, her concerned mother decides to investigate the name of the town that she mutters in her narcoleptic fits: “Silent Hill.”  The pair travel to the titular locale, a modern ghost town that has been abandoned for decades due to a coal fire that continuously burns underground.  Once inside the city limits, mother and daughter are separated, and the mother’s search for her lost child leads her through increasingly bizarre and portentous adventures in the haunted town.

Still from Silent Hill (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • This film was adapted from the cult/horror Sony Play Station video game, “Silent Hill”.  Movie adaptations of video games were (are) a relatively new phenomenon, and had generally not been well received by either movie critics or fans.  Although these movies debuted with the advantage of a built in fan base, Super Mario Bros. (1993), Wing Commander (1993), and Doom (2005) had all been massive critical and box office flops, and that’s leaving aside the efforts of Uwe Boll.  Although the Lara Croft and Resident Evil franchises became minor hits, by 2006 the entire video game adaption genre had already become a critical punchline, synonymous with diminished expectations.
  • Director Christophe Gans, a French b-movie film-geek turned director, was a fan of the “Silent Hill” game series and convinced that he could fashion the first truly successful game adaptation.  He had previously had a surprise international (and modest stateside) hit with Brotherhood of the Wolf [Le Pacte des loups] (2001), a weird but energetic historical/detective/horror/kung fu hybrid.
  • Screenwriter Roger Avary assisted Quentin Tarantino on the scripts for Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994),  as well as handling both screenwriting and directing duties on his own projects, such as Killing Zoe (1994).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Blankets of ash falling over a deserted town like snow, until the eerie stillness is broken by the shrill wail of a 1950s era air raid siren.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Gans paints his murky canvas with the expected

Original trailer for Silent Hill

monstrosities from deep inside the id, but it’s the film’s disjointed storytelling that turns it from a mere visual romp through scary-town into something totally disconcerting and off-kilter.

COMMENTS:  The critics agree: Silent Hill is a fantastic looking picture, but the script is Continue reading 2. SILENT HILL (2006)

1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

AKA A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking
Recommended

DIRECTED BYNicolas Roeg

FEATURINGDonald Sutherland, Julie Christie

PLOT: John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident. Life goes on, however, and they travel to Venice as planned, where John is directing the restoration of a Gothic cathedral. While there, they meet a blind psychic woman who tells them she can see their daughter, and John begins to catch glimpses out of the corner of his eye of a red-hooded figure that looks suspiciously like his drowned daughter.

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BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Nicolas Roeg’s third film, after Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971). The movie was adapted from a short story by the British novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose works also inspired Rebecca and The Birds.
  • The love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland was so graphic for the time that (unverified) rumors persisted that they had actually had intercourse on the set.  Roeg has since dismissed the rumors.
  • Some of the style of the film may have been influenced by Italian giallos of the period, though this connection has been exaggerated simply because of the Venetian setting.
  • Don’t Look Now is #8 on the British Film Institute’s list of the all-time great British films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE : The color red. (More would constitute a spoiler).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDon’t Look Now is subtly unnerving—perhaps toos ubtly—throughout. But the last 20 minutes are a truly unsettling, nightmarish experience, capped by a shocking, largely unexplained resolution that leaves it to the viewer to solve the film’s mystery. By the end, the city of Venice has turned into a strangely deserted, Gothic labyrinth that may haunt your nightmares.


Trailer for Don’t Look Now narrated by John Landis

COMMENTS: Near the opening of Don’t Look Now is a fast-moving montage in which key Continue reading 1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)