Andy Bockelman: Weird watches, spooky screenings
October 28, 2011
The last day of October can mean only one thing people plugged into the media world, and no, I don't mean celebrating the birth date of John Candy, Jane Pauley and Vanilla Ice. Spending All Hallows Eve with a marathon viewing of horror movies while ignoring trick-or-treaters is a time-honored tradition for the couch potato crowd, but finding new scares year by year can be a tough task.
Everybody knows cinema like "Frankenstein," "Night of the Living Dead," "Scream" and plenty more that have been released in the last 100 years, but sometimes the creepiest of the creepy don't get their due. If you're looking for a wide variety of fright, the following features cannot be missed.
1960 was a banner year for fictional perverts with homicidal tendencies, both in America and elsewhere.
While Alfred Hitchcock found one of his greatest successes with "Psycho," fellow British director Michael Powell beat him to the punch earlier in the year with "Peeping Tom," the tale of a young man (Carl Boehm) in London who aspires to be a filmmaker — if only he could stop killing all the women he captures on celluloid. This twisted precursor to the slasher movie was decades ahead of its time in terms of voyeurism and disguised phallic imagery and was thusly considered trash for years before finally gaining a reputation as one of the best films ever to come out of the UK.
Comparing Mark Lewis to Norman Bates is like having a Golden Delicious with a lethal tripod in your left hand and a candy-loving, cross-dressing Valencia in the right, but one thing Powell has over Hitchcock regarding his legacy is that nobody every tried to pointlessly remake his movie shot-for-shot with Vince Vaughn.
The Master of Suspense has spawned many imitators over the years from Brian De Palma to M. Night Shyamalan.
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While the term "Hitchcockian" is often given out with a tinge of sarcasm, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Rodrigo Cortés' 2010 thriller "Buried" focusing on an American truck driver (Ryan Reynolds) stationed in Iraq who awakens in a coffin buried in the desert. With only a lighter, a cell phone and a limited amount of oxygen, he has to conserve his energy and try to finagle a ransom to satisfy his captors.
With the action taking place entirely within the confined space, this isn't a movie for the claustrophobic as Cortés utilizes the singular location premise of Hitch's "Lifeboat" to great effect. A situation that would be the worst nightmare of many people gets more and more terrifying and realistic by the second until even the bravest viewer will at least wince.
It may not be politically correct, but the natural reaction to people who are different is to fear them. Films like "The Elephant Man" and "The Hills Have Eyes" give us a glimpse at fine makeup work to create hideous unfortunates, but an even more awkward part of such a spectacle is knowing the people involved are free of any prosthetics.
Tod Browning put this discomfort to good use in 1932's "Freaks," a look at life in a carnival sideshow, which includes pinheads (Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow), conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and "The Living Torso" (Prince Randian). However, the true villains of this story are the "normal" circus folk, the strongman (Henry Victor) and a seductive trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) who plan to double-cross their trusting dwarf cohort (Harry Earles).
The outcome of their treachery makes for one of the most disturbing sequences ever captured on film, one which required numerous cuts and revisions to accommodate squeamish audiences. Nevertheless, the brutal honesty of gawking at deformities is sure to make you feel ashamed of yourself, and even the portions that remain of the edited version get under your skin, not the least of which is the freaks' chant: "One of us! One of us!"
As long as we're on the topic of Browning, the man who directed the first official version of "Dracula," let's talk about vampires. Ever since 1922's watershed "Nosferatu" — an unauthorized recreation of Bram Stoker's novel — the fast-talking bloodsuckers have arguably been the most popular stars of the horror genre. Whether you prefer the good Count portrayed by Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman or Leslie Nielsen, everyone has brought something to the table.
Perhaps the most unsettling is in 2000's "Shadow of the Vampire," which examines the behind-the-scenes details of F.W. Murnau's (John Malkovich) work on "Nosferatu." Willem Dafoe is unforgettable as German thespian Max Schreck, who is so ensconced in his character, the cast and crew start to wonder if he actually is a creature of the night.
There are few things more unsettling than a method actor, especially when he insists on living in a cave and eats bats in front of other people.
The running tally of vampire films is hardly slowing down by this point, but werewolf flicks are giving them a run for their money, although the "Twilight" series barely counts in either category.
All apologies to Jacob Black, but there are better representations of lycanthropy in "The Wolf Man," "Wolfen," "The Howling," "An American Werewolf in London" and more. The sexual undertones of movies like these got a whole new twist with 2000's "Ginger Snaps," with the teenage title victim Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) receiving the bite of the beast to accompany her first — ahem — time of the month.
Your own experiences with puberty will look infinitely easier in retrospect after you see Ginger go through her metamorphosis, complete with a tail. The same goes for her sister Brigitte's (Emily Perkins) efforts to rid Ginger of her lupine double nature and their mother's (Mimi Rogers) attempts to sit them down for "The Talk."
Don't worry, the flowery theme is only a small part of a very bloody movie, surprisingly graphic considering it's set in the least dangerous place in the world: a Canadian suburb.
The teen years are bad, but horror movies demonstrate that the years leading up to it can be even worse. When it comes to features about little kids encountering the spirit world, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't repeat the line "I see dead people" constantly after seeing "The Sixth Sense" in 1999.
Though it's not nearly as quotable, Guillermo del Toro's 2001 shocker "The Devil's Backbone" proved to be just as worthwhile. Set in a boys orphanage amid the Spanish Civil War, new arrival Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is tormented by the specter of a former resident (Junio Valverde).
This seemingly simple ghost story warrants multiple viewings to fully appreciate everything that's happening in the stylish scenery, something that could also be said of the director's Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth," with the same war serving as a backdrop, or the more contemporary "The Orphanage," which del Toro served as a producer. The film takes its name from the caretaker/doctor's (Federico Luppi) superstitious home remedy, a cure-all rum fermented from unborn fetuses with exposed spinal columns.
The horrors of war are made all the more complicated when you're fighting something you don't understand, as evidenced by "Starship Troopers" and "Cloverfield." The concept of facing an onslaught of otherworldly invaders and losing from the beginning is best construed in 2007's "The Mist," with a group of people in a small Maine town held at bay in a grocery store as creatures from another dimension start to overrun the Northeastern United States.
The design of the abominations that emerge from the unexplained vapor is first-rate, but what's really scary is what happens indoors once panic-stricken people start to turn on each other and the local everyman (Thomas Jane) has to protect his son (Nathan Gamble) and acquaintances from the town's proselytizing extremist (Marcia Gay Harden), who's convinced it's the End of Days. Between mob rule and monsters, it makes for one difficult watch, but the soul-shattering conclusion — notably darker than Stephen King's original novella — will leave you in a state of mind that only the best horror movies can boast.