So you’ve read all the “best of” lists and viewed every title you could get your hands on but still have a hankering for some good ol’ fashion horror? Well, look no further. I have delved deep and put together an alternative “best of” list highlighting great, but overlooked fright flicks for each of the past 31 years, starting with 1987. You won’t find Scream or Hellraiser on this list, but rather 31 neglected titles that belong alongside the traditionally celebrated greats. Enjoy.
Near Dark ignores the gothic conventions of vampire lore in favor of an urban telling of the bloodsucker mythology. Combining sinister characters and urban streets traditionally associated with film noir with the arid plains and narrative themes of the American western, the movie is at once frightening and darkly humorous. Director Kathryn Bigelow captures the bleak yet beautiful atmosphere of the Southwest. Gorgeously shot in smoky blues and saturated in shadows, the picture generates a brooding atmosphere that separates it from other vampire flicks of its time (ie The Lost Boys). The film is aided by a consistently inventive script. Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is a farm boy who is attracted to the big city. There he meets and falls for Mae (Jenny Wright). Hidden behind Mae’s champagne colored locks is a dark secret. She is a vampire. The film rebukes the traditional romantic approach to vampire lore. Vampirism is presented as a sickness. The fact that the film was released amid the aids epidemic of the 80s adds to the ugliness of the disease. When Mae’s family feeds, it is nasty, their gloomy surroundings eclipsed by an onslaught of crimson. Both chilling and poignant, Near Dark is one of the best vampire flicks of all time.
Pumpkinhead remains one of the underappreciated creature designs in the history of horror cinema. Concocted by special effects maestro Stan Winston (who also directed the film) and his team, the monster is awesomely horrendous. When a man (Lance Henriksen) sees his son killed at the hands of a pack of vicious dirt bikers, he conjures the powerfully evil demon to seek revenge. A foreboding ambience dominates the dark and gloomy fairytale, and Winston infuses each scene with a sense of dread. Somewhat overlooked by fans in 1988, the film has since achieved cult status.
Brian Yuzna’s effects extravaganza, Society, about a Beverly Hills teen who discovers his family is part of a sex cult for the social elite works on two fronts. On the surface, it’s about a secret group of rich persons bound by their disdain for the poor. On a much deeper level, it functions as a coming-of-age tale about a boy who becomes enlightened after rejecting the false sense of security formed during his youth. He doesn’t want to become his parents. The decisions he makes for himself may not be in tune with the plans they’ve established for him. Members of the cult transform into gooey masses that absorb the less fortunate at their orgy parties. Faces ooze glop and bodies bend and morph into one another in magnificently repulsive displays of make-up effects. It is wholly disgusting and totally awesome.
Horror scribe Clive Barker follows up his dark and disgusting debut Hellraiser with the madcap monster flick, Nightbreed. Troubled young man Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) dreams of a place where mutant outcasts are accepted. When he discovers the mythic city is real, he finds it is under attack by a psychotic doctor (David Cronenberg). The film maintains a zany atmosphere throughout thanks in part to Barker’s cerebral script and Mark Coulier’s remarkable make-up effects. An array of inbred monsters and angry beasts are symbols for outsider cultures of all sorts and the performance turned in by Cronenberg is truly wicked.
Clever, campy and charmingly schlocky, Popcorn is a movie that horror buffs will love. A college film class organizes a b-movie marathon at an abandoned theater and are stalked by a masked killer. The film captures the spirit of the monster flicks of the 1950s through the lens of a 1980s slasher pic. Inventive death sequences are sandwiched between clips from William Castle-esk scare flicks. The melding of farce and frights should please fans of the genre.
Dust Devil is a beautiful yet strange horror movie about a supernatural shape shifter that wanders the drought-ridden streets of South Africa in search of victims. He can “smell a town waiting to die.” Director Richard Stanley uses creepy cultural symbols and music to create a strange and disturbing analogy about the death of morality. In one memorable scene, the evil spirit sits beside a vulture, both vicious beasts of prey. Relying more on mood and atmosphere than legibility of story, the surreal visuals and textures of Dust Devil result in one of the more provocative horror films of the period.
A four-hundred year old device designed to provide its owner with eternal life falls into the hands of an antiques dealer called Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos. He accidentally triggers the ornate, metallic instrument and soon begins to age in reverse. Meanwhile, a dying millionaire sends his nephew (Ron Pearlman) to steal the device for himself. A bizarre take on the classic vampire yarn, del Toro’s unusual debut is gory and atmospheric and an intelligent allegory for drug addiction during the decade of decadence. Gris continually employs the Cronos device to add more time to nurture his young granddaughter, however becomes so dependent on the mysterious contraption that he is unable to take pleasure in the quality time it provides him.
Cemetery Man is a French/Italian Co-production starring Rupert Everett as a cemetery caretaker called Francesco who oversees a graveyard where “returners” rise from the dead seven days after being killed. He falls in love with a beautiful widow only to see her killed by the zombie of her husband. There is a calm detachment to Francesco and his Igor-like assistant (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) as they dispatch of the walking dead. The only thing separating Francesco from the undead, the only thing setting the roaming meat-eaters apart from the living is love. Francesco’s life seems meaningless now that his love is lost. Cemetery Man is a delightfully wacky, exceedingly gory commentary about life and the things that make it worth living.
Re-Animator stars Jeffry Combs and Barbara Crampton play John and Susan Reilly, a struggling couple who discover a strange and deadly creature roaming the halls of their magnificent, 12th Century home in Castle Freak. Despite his varied attempts at rapprochement, Susan can’t forgive John for a drunken accident that killed their beloved son and left their daughter blind. Director Stuart Gordon has a fantastic visual sense and a talent for developing character. The monster at the heart of his tragic fairy tale serves to express the intense feeling of remorse enveloping John. As his family disengages further, he descends deeper into despair and the creature becomes more and more violent.
Stendhal’s Syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes a dizzying sensation within afflicted persons when exposed to great works of art. It is also the inspiration for Dario Argento’s 1996 horror thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome. Starring Argento’s daughter, Asia, as Anna Mani, a police detective in pursuit of a serial killer who transforms his victims into ghoulish works of art. Anna dispatches of the killer but not before he uses her as one of his canvases, shaping her with a knife and painting her with blood. Unable to shake the trauma she endured, Anna becomes a killer herself. Though not as cherished as Argento’s previous genre efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is every bit as intense and unsettling as anything in his canon. He seems fascinated with art as a potentially detrimental factor in people’s lives. He applies the same unique vision we’ve come to expect from him in this exploration of the phenomena.
The films of director Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with wunderkind Paul T. Anderson), have been continually met with upturned noses. Only Death Race has breached the 40% mark on Rottentomatoes and that’s a remake of a genre picture that received an outpouring of support. Among the critical missteps though are a couple of pictures that deserve a second look. Touted as a generic and lazy exercise upon its initial release, Event Horizon is actually a better effort than it’s given credit for. The tale of a malevolent spaceship and the troubled engineer who created it, the picture feels like a horrific companion piece to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though not on the level of that monumental sci-fi classic, Event Horizon depicts the violent nature of man with similar vigor. It’s dark and haunting and gory and worthy of examination.
That’s it for this week. Come back in 7 days for 1998-2007.