Topic: Ten Horror Films Which Deserve More Attention PART IV
By now you folks should know the deal; this isn't intended to be a "best of" list. Rather, it's just a collection of lesser discussed films which I encourage genre fans to check out. Some are flawed, some aren't, but all have something which makes them worth checking out at least once. Enjoy.
10. They Came From Within (aka Shivers, aka The Parasite Murders, 1975)
As is widely known, David Cronenberg is about as allegorical a filmmaker as they come. They Came From Within, a filmic epilogue to the free-love '60s and the preponderance of sexually transmitted diseases which resulted from that period, is one of his strongest. Rife with the kind of overt sexuality and body horror which marks all of Cronenberg's best films, the story revolves around the staff physician at an exclusive highrise condominium who discovers an infestation of leach-like creatures which wiggle their way into their victims and turn them into sex-crazed lunatics. What makes the film work so well, and the reason I believe it deserves more attention from modern fans, is that its themes are just as relevant today as they were when the film was made nearly forty years ago. Much like how Cronenberg's film Videodrome seemed to predict the modern video age of sex and violence streamed directly into your home, They Came From Within also displays an almost eerie foreshadowing of the explosion of HIV/AIDS cases nearly a decade later. And while the material could have just as easily been played with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Cronenberg and his cast instead play it admirably straight, even managing to break a couple taboos in the process -- though that should come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in Cronenberg and his particular brand of filmmaking.
Why it's worth it: The pixie-ish beauty Lynn Lowry in one of her more effective and enticing performances.
9. Night School (1981)
English beauty Rachel Ward may be best known as Jeff Bridges' love interest in the crime drama Against All Odds, but she's also appeared in more than her fair share of horror and thriller flicks. Night School, Ward's first foray into horror/thrillers, concerns the exploits of a mad slasher bedecked in black leather and a motorcycle helmet with a penchant for decapitating their victims. I ain't gonna lie: The film has its faults, including, but not limited to, some over-ripe acting and some directorial stiffness. And while it attempts to disguise itself as a police thriller, it's not fooling anyone -- this is a slasher flick through and through, featuring copious stalk-and-slash sequences and bundles of sometimes surprisingly effective suspense. But when it comes right down to it, like most of the films she would go on to appear in, the biggest draw here is Ward herself, stunning as ever with her raven hair, big, expressive eyes and legs which defiantly refuse direct orders to quit. It's not often I recommend a film mostly for its actress's looks, but this one's an exception. That it also happens to be a slasher film is just an added bonus.
Why it's worth it: If you need a better reason than Rachel Ward, there's something wrong with you.
8. Dust Devil (1992)
Poor Richard Stanley. The South African filmmaker had just began making a name for himself when he found himself being courted by Hollywood. Before long he signed on to direct the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But the experience proved a gruelling one as Stanley quickly found himself dealing with constant script rewrites, ridiculous demands from the diva actors and even harsher demands from the producers, basically strangling his creative vision. When he attempted to stand up for himself, the producers had him fired. But that wasn't the worst of it. John Frankenheimer took over as director and eventually the film was finished and released, and quickly proved a flop. But it wasn't the diva-like actors, producers or Frankenheimer who took the blame; rather, the buck was quickly passed to Stanley in a callous act of Tinsel Town cover-your-assdom which effectively killed the director's Hollywood career before it had even begun. Luckily -- for horror fans, if not for Stanley himself -- he had already made two memorable genre films in his native South Africa first. His debut film, the sci-fi suspenser Hardware, would go on to become a certifiable cult classic. Dust Devil, his second film, is less known, but just as effective. Robert John Burke (one of those actors you see often but whose name you never catch) stars as the titular creature, a demon who stalks the vast South African deserts in search of depressed, suicidal women to sex up and then slaughter. But he meets his match in the form of Wendy (Chelsea Field), who has just left her abusive husband and finds carnal solace in the Devil's seductive arms, but who to his chagrin isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. Like most cult films, Dust Devil has its flaws, but its strengths make up for enough of them to keep things interesting. Burke does a fine job as the demon, Field is engaging and sympathetic as the heroin and the late, great character actor Zakes Mokae plays yet another cop (a strong contender, along with Reginald VelJohnson, for the Actor Who Has Played the Most Cops in His Career" Award). If you can find it, go with the "Final Cut" version; the R-Rated version is heavily shorn.
Why it's worth it: Ample doses of splat and atmosphere.
7. Deep in the Woods (aka Promenons-nous dans les bois, 2000)
Over the last thirteen years or so, French horror filmmakers have apparently been hellbent on reminding the rest of the world what horror films have been missing for so long, namely strong characterization, merciless tension and heaping helpings of unrestrained grue. And if the effectiveness of such films as Inside (2007), Haute Tension (2003), Frontier(s)(2007), In My Skin (2002) and Ils (2006) are any indication, I'd say they've achieved their goal. But Deep Within the Woods, one of the earliest entries in what could be seen as the New Wave of French Horror, goes the opposite route and focuses more on style and mood than in-your-face splatter or energetic pacing. An intentionally slow-paced film which takes its time getting where it's going, Deep Within the Woods spins the tale of a group of young actors hired by a wealthy recluse to put on a play at his home, but soon find themselves being stalked by a mysterious killer in a wolf mask. In the interest of full disclosure, logic doesn't play a very large role in this one and it has a decidedly low body count for a slasher flick. But it's so well filmed, the colors and textures are so deep and the cinematography so plush, that it tends to make up for the weaknesses. I realize such things may not be huge selling points to fans in search of harder-edged stuff, but for those with an eye for scenery and an appreciation of a well-shot film, Deep in the Woods is a nice little gem.
Why it's worth it: It's just so pretty!
6. Four Flies on Grey Velvet
The third film by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento is one of the more interesting in his catalogue in that it represents the maturing of a filmmaker whose previous two films (Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O' Nine Tails) showed an artist struggling to find his own voice. Not that Bird or Cat were bad films (though Cat left more than a little to be desired) but watching them you can sense Argento attempting to both stretch the basic giallo paradigm and adhere to it at the same time. But with Four Flies, Argento had finally found his confidence, knew what he wanted to say, and proved better capable of articulating it. What would later become his signature touches are all here: psychosexual underpinnings, misdirection, visual flairs, rampant symbolism and stylized kill scenes. It's also a rather intriguing murder mystery, about a musician named Roberto who, upon confronting a stalker, accidentally kills the man (or does he?) and soon finds himself the target of a psycho who witnessed the act and seems intent on either driving Roberto crazy, or killing him, or both. While the film may not be as polished or as stylishly violent as his later films, Four Flies on Grey Velvet nevertheless represents an important step in the growth of one of the genre's greatest bona fide artists.
Why it's worth it: The doozy of a finale.
5. Fright Night II (1987)
The original Fright Night gave the ladies something to drool over in the form of the sleek and seductive vampire Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) who oozed charisma and charm even while sinking his teeth into a victim's neck. But with Fright Night II it was the guys' turn to drool as our youthful hero Charlie Brewster finds himself the target of Dandridge's sister Regine, also a vampire, eager to avenge her brother's death. Also back for another round is the late and sorely missed Roddy McDowell as late-night horror show host Peter Vincent, quirky and engaging as ever. Julie Carmen was an interesting choice for the role of Regine; her beauty, while apparent, has a strangeness to it that's hard to define, but undeniable in its allure. And while the primary cast do fine jobs in their roles, the real stars of this film are Regine's monstrous posse, headed by her bug-chomping henchman Bozworth (Brian Thompson, who himself is a character actor deserving of far more attention than he gets). Throw in typically excellent perpetual support player Jon Gries as a werewolf (his second after Monster Squad) and Russell Clark as a curiously androgenous rollerskating vamp, and what you have is a fun little monster romp bustling with energy, wit and, given that this is an 80s flick, more Aquanet than you can shake a stick at.
Why it's worth it: The bowling alley sequence.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Don't let the PG rating fool you; this deadly serious and superior remake of the memorable 1956 original boasts some heebie jeebie-inducing FX, full frontal female nudity and even a face being caved in by a shovel. It also features a number of solid character performances by a stable of expert character actors such as Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and, most notably, Leonard Nimoy, in one of his few film roles which didn't require him to wear pointy ear extensions. The plot, which features Sutherland as a health inspector who along with a small group of friends uncovers a plot orchestrated by a gelatinous alien species to conquer the planet by replicating its entire population, is both similar enough to the original to honor it, and different enough to feel fresh. And its timing couldn't have been better; released a handful of years after the Viet Nam War ended, the allusions to forthright Americans fighting a sneaky and unscrupulous foreign threat scored well with audiences, making this one of the more financially and critically successful remakes of all time. But that was thirty five years ago, and the subsequent generation of genre fans seem to have somehow managed to overlook it. Their loss.
Why it's worth it: The creepy and heart-breaking final moment.
3. Bride of Re-Animator (1989)
"West, this has got to stop!" barked our hero Dan Caine at demented Dr. Herbert West after West decapitates, then re-animates, the villainous Dr. Hill in the original Re-Animator (1985). But West didn't listen to him then, and he doesn't listen to him in this flawed but fun follow-up, either. West's obsession with defeating death is as prevalent as ever, and Dan, still reeling from the loss of his girlfriend from the first film, finds himself falling for a sickly patient (80s b-movie starlet Kathleen Kinmont) at the hospital where the two now find themselves employed. But while our deviant dynamic duo continue their day-glo green experiments, the wife-beating detective investigating the climactic morgue slaughter from the first film is getting perilously too close for comfort. And he's not the only one giving Dan and Herbert grief: Dr. Hill himself is back as well, still a disembodied head and just as determined as ever to steal West's reanimation fluid. The biggest difference between Bride and its predecessor is that this time it's the original film's producer, Brian Yuzna, in the director's chair instead of Stuart Gordon. And while Yuzna's style isn't as sleek or fluid as Gordon's, he nevertheless does an admirable job creating a sequel which, while not as good a film as the original, is still quite entertaining in its own right.
Why it's worth it: The morbidly enticing titular Bride.
2. From Beyond (1986)
Stuart Gordon appears to have become a regular on these "more attention" lists, and for good reason. Despite having helmed one of the most highly regarded horror films of the 1980s (if not all time), Gordon remains one of the lesser-discussed genre directors whose work, while not always phenomenal, is nevertheless always interesting. This film, Gordon's second H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (very loosely based on the Lovecraft short story of the same name) features the lovely Barbara Crampton as a new-age psychologist attempting to treat a patient (Gordon film regular and pint-sized genre star extraordinaire Jeffrey Combs) whom she believes to be suffering from paranoid delusions of creatures from an alternate dimension. But we know he's not faking, and it isn't long before Babs is convinced as well. Joining them for the fun is Dawn of the Dead vet Ken Foree as a jersey-wearing cop named Bubba investigating the apparent death of Combs' mentor. Why this film tends to get overlooked is beyond me; it's ripe with dark humor, gore and eroticism, not to mention entertaining performances and Gordon's usual astute direction.
Why it's worth it: Barbara Crampton in S&M gear. Hot damn!
1. Fatal Frames (1996)
I don't recommend bad films very often, but sometimes there comes a film which reaches beyond (below?) the limits of "just bad" and into the realm of "sublimely god-awful." Fatal Frames is a case in point. Helmed by notoriously egocentric Italian music video director Al Festa, Fatal Frames is the story of Alex, an American music video director who travels to Italy to direct the latest video by spaghetti pop sensation Stefania Stella (also the actress's real name) who quickly finds himself involved in a series of slashings perpetrated by a masked maniac with an improbably large machete. All the ingredients for a classic giallo are here; sultry victims, stylish murder scenes, an incessant, off-kilter soundtrack, etc.. But the film completely fails on the story level (if you don't know who the killer is in the first twenty minutes, I hereby demote you to Full Retard status) and in terms of direction, Festa is apparently from the "more is more" school of filmmaking and loads the film up with extended sequences involving the video shoot, painfully drawn out performance moments by Stella (who we're supposed to believe is a sex bomb despite having the body of a bowl of pudding, a face tailor-made for radio and a set of lips so puffy you can almost see the valve stem when she opens her mouth) and more melodrama than you'd find in half a dozen American soap operas combined. To have so very little story for such and inordinately long running time (right around two hours) is proof positive that Festa must have forgotten where he placed his editing machine. Yet his most criminal offense is having cast a number of genre legends such as Linnea Quigely, Angus Scrimm, David Hemmings (in one of his last films) and Donald Pleasence (in his very last film, and who deserved better) only to give them nothing at all to do. I don't know what his original intention with the film was, but at some point he must have decided this was going to be a vehicle for then-girlfriend Stella. This is painfully obvious when you consider how long and drawn out her scenes are and how far Festa goes out of his way to present her as being seductive -- again, despite how positively unattractive the broad is. No offense intended to the lady, but I've seen train wrecks more attractive than what that chick has going on above the neck. But much like the film Pieces I covered a couple installments back, you're not going to believe just how hilariously awful this film is until you see it for yourself -- that is, if you can find a copy. Not surprisingly, this is a tough flick to track down.
Why it's worth it: If there was ever a film to which the word "overkill" more accurately applied, I've never seen it.