Topic: Ten Horror Films Which Deserve More Attention, PART V
This installment marks the halfway point of my intended ten-part collection of overlooked horror films which deserve more attention than they get. As usual this is not a "best of" list, merely a number of films I encourage my fellows fans to check out or, if you've already seen them, to revisit with a fresh perspective. So, with that out of the way...
10. Witchboard (1986)
A year before she gained notoriety as "that chick in the Whitesnake video," actress, rock star wife and imaginary playmate of many a randy teenage self-abuser Tawny Kitaen took the lead in this largely ignored slow-burner about an evil spirit which possesses a woman through her ex-boyfriend's ouija board (hey, stranger things have happened). Witchboard is another one of those quiet little horror films I tend to lean towards so easily, because I like when a filmmaker makes an effort to scare or disturb me rather than shock or startle me. But what I appreciate most about this particular film is that it isn't afraid to explore the relationships between its characters, particularly Stephen Nichols and Todd Allen as Kitaen's ex- and current boyfriends, respectively, who happened to have been best friends before Kitaen dumped the former for the latter. What I liked about this relationship is that while the two men are antagonistic toward one another, the actors play them as if there's still a hint of mutual affection between the two. After all, even platonic love isn't easily lost, and you get the feeling that each man hates that the other is no longer his friend. But this was years before the phrase "bros before hos" was coined; maybe if this flick had been made ten years later, it would have had the two men rekindle their friendship much sooner than mere moments before one meets his brutal, untimely demise.
Why it's worth it: Caution: Falling Drywall!
9.Bad Moon (1996)
For those like me who complain there aren't enough good werewolf movies out there, Bad Moon mostly delivers. I say "mostly" because the bad stuff (Mariel Hemingway, underdeveloped script, really...really bad CGI werewolf transformation, Mason Gamble) very nearly overwhelms the good stuff. But luckily, the good stuff (Michael Pare, lush cinematography, bloody violence, bad-ass werewolf and a genuinely exceptional canine performance) manages to outweigh the bad juuuuuuuust enough to make this film worth checking out. Based on the novel Thor by Wayne Smith (which I've never read), Bad Moon is the tale of a photo-journalist named Ted who, after being attacked by a werewolf in the wilds of Nepal, travels to the Pacific Northwest to be near his sister and nephew, hoping that the simple love of his family might cure him of his carnivorous alter ego. But he didn't count on the family dog, Thor, who instinctively recognizes Ted's inner beast and views him as a threat not only to the family, but also to Thor's own alpha maleness as well. Suffice to say it's only a matter of time before things turn hairy (heh) and the shit -- and the fur, and the fangs, and the blood -- hit the fan. Released during the fall of '96 following an almost non-existent ad campaign and unceremoniously pulled from theaters after only a week, Bad Moon may not be a great film but it does have its moments. As mentioned in a previous THMTDMA article, it's also yet another effort by writer/director Eric Red to put a spin on one of the classic Universal monsters (The Wolf Man, a-doy!).
Why it's worth it: Big, drooling German Shephard vs big, drooling werewolf. 'Nuff said.
Full disclosure: Carriers is a horror film in concept only. There are no big jump scares, no screeching hordes of infected, no gore and very little blood. In all actuality, this story of two brothers and their girlfriends struggling to survive a deadly global virus plays a lot more like a drama, only with much more tension and pathos. The performances are excellent across the board (especially by star Chris Pine and the vastly underrated Chris Meloni, who makes the most of his all-too-brief supporting role), the direction is smooth and assured and the writing is concise and evocative. The film's main concern is the interaction of the characters, the things they do to survive, and what happens when they discover that one of their own is infected -- and the answer may surprise you. Callously dumped to video following an equally unfair limited theatrical release (Stephen King himself ranted in Entertainment Weekly on how such a quality film could disappear without fanfare while garbage such as Transformers raked in millions), Carriers doesn't hammer you with violence or rattle you with shocks, but it does go out of its way to make you think what you would do if you were in the characters' shoes.
Why it's worth it: Chris Meloni's moving performance as a father trying to save his infected daughter.
7.Mute Witness (1994)
The 90s have been accused of being one of the weaker decades for horror, and for the most part it's true -- at least as far as mainstream horror goes. Independent horror, however, not only soldiered on during the Generation X decade, it damn well exploded. Some of the very best horror films from the nineties were either shot on video, released straight-to-video or were foreign -- all the places most horror fans don't bother looking (or at least didn't bother looking back then). Among these many indie gems is Mute Witness, in which a mute (and cute) lady special effects artist named Billy is accidentally locked into the warehouse location after a day's filming, where she witnesses what she at first thinks are a couple crew members shooting their own cheapo skin flick, but which she quickly realizes is actually a snuff film. Writer/director Anthony Hickox (who would later helm the ill-advised sequel, American Werewolf in Paris) displays near-Hitchockian ability to generate a whole lotta suspense out of very little material, especially during moments where a simple shout for help would be more than enough to save Billy's skin -- if only she could speak! Along with oodles of suspense, the film also features Obi Wan Kenobi himself, Sir Alec Guiness, in one of his final film appearances, cameoing as the head of the Russian snuff film ring.
Why it's worth it: If you're not chewing your nails during the extended warehouse hide-and-seek sequence, it's probably because you don't have any fingers.
6.Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Don Coscarelli's biggest claim to fame may be the Phantasm series, but for this fan's money, his best film is Bubba Ho-Tep. It also happens to feature what is IMO the best performance to date by famously chinned genre fave Bruce Campbell as -- get this -- Elvis Presley, who, after faking his death way back in the summer of '77, now resides in a retirement home in Texas and is plagued with a cancerous prostate. But something's rotten in the state of Texas, as The King's fellow nursing home residents start turning up dead. With the help of John F. Kennedy, who is now black (watch it for the explanation), Elvis soon discovers that there's an age-old mummy on the loose, sucking up old folks' souls through their fourth points of contact -- and it's up to The King and JFK to send his rotten ass back to hell. Sounds like a lot of whacky fun, doesn't it? And it is -- at times. But for the most part this is witty yet often somber character study of two old men who may or may not be who they claim to be, set against the backdrop of a horror movie. Both Campbell and Ozzie Davis (as JFK) are wonderful in their roles, but Bubba Ho-Tep is just as much about the fall from youthful grace to withered old goat as it is about a couple old farts battling a Stetson-wearing mummy who slurps out old folks' souls through their buttholes.
Why it's worth it: Even if he's not the real deal, Campbell's impersonation is exactly what you'd expect if Elvis had lived to be seventy.
5.Session 9 (2001)
Man, talk about eerie! This disturbing little potboiler has moments of such intense creepiness that the first time I saw it I had to stand up and walk around to shake off the heebie jeebies not once, but twice! As I mentioned regarding Witchboard above, I truly admire genre filmmakers who opt to go the "quiet" route; filmmakers whose soul intention is to unnerve you and make your skin crawl rather than gross you out with outlandish splatter setpieces or cater to the lowest common denominator by loading up their films with double-digit breast counts. And Session 9, which concerns a team of asbestos removers hired to strip down a notorious, out-of-commission insane asylum, goes out of its way to rattle you to your very last nerve. And that it does. The best thing about it is that it never really says what makes its characters go crazy. Is it simple stress due to the unrealistic deadline their foreman set? Exhaustion? A ghost? Or is it a malicious genius loci, an inherent, living evil which exists within the very walls of the asylum itself? Whatever it is, director Brad Anderson masterfully ratchets up the tension to the point where you fear not only for the safety of the workers on-screen, but for your own emotional well-being, as well. The climax has left more than one viewer scratching his head, but that's almost beside the point. This flick is all about the trip, not the destination, and the trip is well worth taking.
Why it's worth it: Because it sticks with you long after the final credits have finished rolling.
One of the score of no-budget SOV (Shot On Video) flicks to flood the indie horror scene in the mid- to late-90s, Bloodletting is a cheap, sick and blackly comedic tale of a woman who blackmails a serial killer into teaching her the tricks of the murder trade because years before she saw him murder her best friend -- and not only did it not upset her, it turned her on! James L. Edwards (the L stands for "Lon" -- get some!), veteran of many Tempe Video productions (whose founder, James R. Bookwalter, directed the cult zombie favorite Dead Next Door) stars as Butch, the aforementioned serial killer, with fellow Tempe starlet Ariauna Albright as his feisty co-conspirator. Among the many morbidly humorous occurrences the film offers are a baby shotgunned in its crib, the slaughter of a trio of stoners in a video store, a man castrated while receiving felatio, and in-depth discussions on Serial Killing 101. As with the vast majority of SOV productions the acting is often stiff and amateurish, the direction is mostly of the "point and shoot" variety and the gore FX are bargain basement and obvious. Because of this, most genre fans tend to avoid them. But if it helps, Quentin Tarantino himself is a major fan of the flick -- as am I. And to prove it, you can find a segment of my review on the DVD special features, written during my stint as a staff reviewer at ZombieKeeper.com.
Why it's worth it: Funny, twisted...this flick's got moxie.
There's quirky, and then there's quirky. And from its story, to its characters, and even to its score, Ravenous is as quirky as quirky gets. Guy Pearce stars as Boyd, a lieutenant in the Mexican-American War who, following an act of unforgivable cowardice, is exiled to a lonely post deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But something odd happened during his experience in the field; at one point he accidentally ingested human blood, and now he finds himself constantly craving more. Not long after he arrives at his new duty station, Boyd and his fellow soldiers are visited by a harried stranger (the brilliant Robert Carlyle) with a bizarre tale of survival and cannibalism. He leads them to a cave far off-base where the men realize to their horror that the man's tale is true -- and that he himself is the voracious cannibal. I won't spoil any more plot points from here, other than to say that in this film, the ingestion of human flesh has a rather powerful effect on those who partake of it, and the climax features an extended cannibal vs cannibal showdown which doesn't hesitate to pour on the ol' red stuff. Not to over-use the word "quirky," but any film which features David Arquette in a major supporting role is going to have its share of kookiness. Ravenous has it in spades -- and that's a good thing.
Why it's worth it: Did I mention the extended cannibal vs cannibal showdown?
2.Psychos in Love (1987)
Ten years before Bloodletting explored the potential for black humor in the coupling of two homicidal maniacs, Psychos in Love introduced the world (or the small percentage of the world which actually saw it) to Joe and Kate, two remoreseless serial killers who have grown tired of the dating world (they have a habit of killing their dates) but who come together over a mutual dislike of grapes. You see, Joe and Kate hate grapes. All kinds of grapes. They hate purple grapes. They hate green grapes. They hate grapes with seeds. They hate grapes without seeds. They hate them peeled and non-peeled. They hate grapes in bunches, one at a time, or in groups of twos and threes. They fucking hate grapes! After the usual getting-to-know-you period, the two decide it's time for the next big step -- killing together. But as with most relationships there comes the point where their differing tastes clash and the two find themselves constantly bickering. But when the plumber they call in to clear their sink of human debris turns out to be a degenerate cannibal who threatens to rat them out if they don't supply him a steady stream of bodies to chow down on, the couple must overcome their differences to take the sicko down. Let's not beat around the bush: this is one cheap-ass flick. The effects are skid row, the acting is strictly amateur (with the exception of the two leads, who have terrific chemistry and obviously had a blast while shooting), more than one joke falls flat and the theme song, while somewhat oddly enjoyable at first, quickly grates on your nerves. But what parts of the movie do work, work very well. For instance, rather than be hampered by their near non-existant budget the filmmakers instead embrace it, intentionally allowing boom mics to dip into frame and for the camera to pan aside to reveal special FX technicians feverishly pumping bug sprayers full of fake blood. Okay, fine, so it's not high art. But it is splattery, off-the-wall and frequently funny.
Why it's worth it: "What, a woman?"
A lot of horror fans went into this one thinking it was a film about insects crawling under their victims' skins and devouring them one tiny bite at a time. Which makes sense, considering that's what the misleading ad campaign promised. What they got instead was a character study of a man who only thinks his body is host to a swarm of flesh-eating bugs. As a result, many a fan left the theater dismayed, damning the film itself for the fault of the ad agency. This was a mistake on their part. Because while it's true the film definitely is not about an infestation of killer bugs, it's nevertheless a deeply disturbing psychological trip about two damaged people in an unhealthily symbiotic relationship and their shared descent into harrowing, tragic madness. Michael Shannon delivers a tour de force performance as a quiet and unassuming Persian Gulf vet who is quickly revealed to be a deeply paranoid schizophrenic caught up in the delusion that the government has injected him with bug-like transmitters to track his every breath, thought and action. Ashley Judd suffers no such delusion but has emotional damage of her own, the kind of damage which compels her to latch on to Shannon like the captain of a sinking boat who refuses to abandon ship and who willingly chooses to see what she knows in her rational mind is not truly there. The characterizations are fantastic; this is easily Judd's best work, and Shannon -- then a relative unknown -- scores a powerhouse performance that is at once sympathetic, moving, frightening and off-the-charts, bat-shit crazy. Make no mistake about it: this may not be about killer bugs, but this most definitely is a horror film. A psychological horror film, to be exact, and a right damn good one.
Why it's worth it: Shannon and Judd. Nothing else need be said.