Sunday, December 27, 2009

Deadgirl

We as a people are extremely list oriented (grocery lists, shopping lists). We are consistently listing and ranking things (box office scores, sports teams). The genre fan in particular is enamored with the art of assigning classification (best horror pic of the decade, best film of the year). Thus, as the year draws to a close, I have begun to reflect on what the realm of cinema has had to offer in 2009. In an effort to organize a satisfactory “best horror of 2009" list I have endeavored to expose myself to as much genre fare as possible. Among the titles that had, until recently, eluded me was Deadgirl, a sordid little video nasty that has been included on a number of “best of” lists.

The movie, which witnesses a pair of high school boys defacing an abandoned hospital before discovering in its basement the naked body of a zombified woman, fails to satisfy the moral disquisition hinted at via its plot. As a high school teacher, I am witness to the immoral actions of teenagers on a daily basis. Most recently, members of the school’s soccer team sketched an 80 yard replica of the male organ of copulation in the snow outside the building. Still, it takes a special kind of someone to defile an open wound in the belly of a bound and battered woman while friends jest and jeer from the sidelines. It is extremely difficult to maintain lively interest in a film with such abhorrent characters. Even during a moment when the movie attempts to lend its protagonist an air of humanity by having him free the title character from her shackles, it first has him borrow said tool from a drug dealer.

I was reminded at points throughout Deadgirl of Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age tale Stand By Me: also a story about adolescents stumbling upon a dead body (and in support of my earlier claims regarding the idiosyncracies of genre fans, my fourth all-time favorite film). That movie captured the horrors of boyhood (a period when one is given to rebellion yet fearful of the consequences) while simultaneously illustrating the magic of childhood. Deadgirl could have done the same thing, however, ultimately is too concerned with making its audience feel uneasy. A framing of adolescent misfortune (alienation, peer pressure) is displaced by one-dimensional characters whose vocabulary is limited to four-letter words, a soundtrack littered with trite emo tunes and one too many hand-held images of hardened nipples.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2000s Horror (slightly revamped list)

The staff at HorrorHound recently voted on what they felt were the best horror pictures released during the 2000s. The results were printed in the magazine’s most recent issue. While the goal of the article was to accentuate quality works, the overall sentiment of the piece seemed to be one of disapproval. I found this ironic as condensing the pool of horror films released during the Noughties (2000s) proved for me to be an extremely difficult task – not because of the lack of superior movies but rather due to the large number of first-rate works.

The period is most known for its proliferation of horror remakes as well as a return to the graphic violence that permeated the post-Vietnam years (headed by a number of financially successful European films), a trend that has led to the inexplicable birth of a new genre dubbed “horror porn.” See below for what was the best of the best of the past 10 years (in my humble opinion).

1. Martyrs
2. Wolf Creek
3. Ils
4. The Descent
5. House of the Devil
6. Inside
7. Haute Tension
8. Fraily
9. Let the Right One In
10. Ginger Snaps

HM: Session 9

Friday, December 4, 2009

1990s Horror

The 1990s were marred by a recession of ideas headed by a series of failed sequels and dying franchises. The proliferation of sanguinary pics that flooded the shelves of video stores in the 80s crossed with a young audience spoiled by advancements in computer-generated effects resulted in horror losing its place as a juggernaut at the box office. In an effort to reconnect with audiences, filmmakers resorted to a self-reflexive style of storytelling (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), often to the point of parody (Dead Alive). Thus, Neve Campbell in Scream says of horror films, “they're all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door,” just before she herself flees up the steps. More straight-ahead attempts at horror throughout the decade dwelled more within the realm of thriller than terror. Still, while the voice of horror seemed to want to utter, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” (my favorite 90s catch phrase), a few titles did manage to fear and delight. Here’s a list of what I feel was the best horror had to offer in the 1990s.

1. The Blair Witch Project
2. The Silence of the Lambs
3. Scream
4. Kalifornia
5. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
6. Dead Alive
7. The Sixth Sense
8. Seven
9. In the Mouth of Madness
10. Nightbreed

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

1980s Horror

Despite the assertion of Oscar Wilde, art does imitate life. So what concerns beset the era of Garbage Pail Kids, legwarmers and glam rock? What communal fears plagued the decade of Hungry Hungry Hippos, Pop Rocks and the Brat Pack?

Embraced by a generation that feared nuclear fallout, gang warfare and the AIDS epidemic, horror pictures of the 1980s exposed the ugly underpinnings of American society. Hot on the heels of the shootings at Kent State; Vietnam; the second Cold War; the boycotting of the Summer Games in Moscow, horror positioned itself as a force to be reckoned with at the box office.

The Terminator witnessed a world ravaged by nuclear war and cashed almost $80 million in ticket sales. John Carpenter’s The Thing saw a US Antarctic research team resort to blood testing to determine who among them was safe and who was “infected.” David Cronenberg’s The Fly featured a scientist plagued by a degenerative disease that attacked his physical shell. Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage witnessed a naïve teen resorting to murder in exchange for a hallucinogenic alien fluid.

The 80s also saw the (to coin a freshly popular phrase) reimagining of classic monsters, the transition from slasher to rubber-reality, the advent of the mom-and-pop video store and accompanying gore fare, the return of the anthology and the sequel craze.

Among all this is a collection of truly imaginative, really frightening and wholly entertaining movies. Here are a few that I feel stand out among the crowd:

1. The Evil Dead – Vicious, visceral, grueling and inventive. Quite possibly my favorite film of all time.
2. Fright Night – Tom Holland exploits the clichés of the genre in triumphant fashion. This film ranks slightly above Near Dark for best vamp pic of the decade, though the margin is slim.
3. Hellraiser – Clive Barker’s imagination is unparalleled. The best rubber-reality has to offer.
4. An American Werewolf in London – A nearly perfect blending of comedy and horror. For the longest time I had an internal debate as to which was a better film between this and The Howling before settling on AWIL.
5. The Fog – A classic ghost story that features a commendable simplicity, the Fog is the most underrated of Carpenter’s 80s pics, boasting his most chilling score and Cundey’s most beautiful photography.
6. Friday the 13th – If Halloween introduced the conventions of the slaher sub-genre, Friday the 13th set them in stone. It is the film that all others in its wake inspire to be. Its structure has become so familiar as to become almost silly.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street – Wes Craven’s first reinventing of the genre. He tossed aside the faceless, voiceless stalker on a mission in favor of a maniac with burned flesh and a sarcastic wit.
8. Re-Animator – Of all the 80s zombie pics (Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead) this one made me laugh the loudest and cringe the hardest.
9. The Thing – Perhaps Carpenter’s strongest directorial effort the film boasts terrific effects and a relevant theme.
10. Poltergeist – Most will be surprised to see this ghost title placed above The Shining on my list but its satirical storyline exploits every childhood phobia imaginable resulting in a truly scary experience and is at the present, my 10th favorite horror film of the 1980s.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

1970s horror

A June Cleaver type bites off a man's most intimate of parts while performing the act of fellatio; a crippled youth is maimed at the hands of a chainsaw-wielding maniac; a half-wit uses the recently dead flesh of young women to mend the decaying corpse he calls mother; a vacationing family finds their German Shepherd gutted at the hands of a cannibal clan. These are just a few of the extraordinary scenarios thrust upon an ill-prepared audience during the savage cinema period of the 1970s. Never more exploitive, the media, with Dan Rather at the helm, tested the American sentimentality on a nightly basis with images of a war-torn Vietnam. Cinema is an affecting medium. The most perhaps of all the arts for it casually blends the expression of the written word with that of music, drama and movement. Its impact, however, pales in comparison to that garnered via the cataclysms of war. Thus, directors the likes of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and Sam Peckinpah took advantage of this new immunity, creating visions of intense and profound horror with near disregard for the emotional state of their audiences. I recently blogged about worthy horror pics released during the current decade; the geek gears that occasionally drive my brain sparked into motion and I was compelled to pay homage to what is arguably the greatest period in horror history by counting down the best genre films of said decade (in this fan's opinion). Read on if you care at all.

1. Halloween

2. Jaws

3. Dawn of the Dead

4. Don't Look Now

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

6. The Exorcist

7. Martin

8. Phantasm

9. It's Alive

10. The Hills Have Eyes

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scariest Movies of All Time

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) Directed by Tobe Hooper 
Whether you contribute it to the Poltergeist controversy, the oft-putting repute surrounding Chainsaw or the fact that his pictures are many times misunderstood, Hooper has sadly not shared the same success of his counterparts. He is however an accomplished movie-maker and his ability to manipulate film grammar is nearly unparalleled. His first weapon in Chainsaw is wielded during the picture’s opening tile craw as a foreboding John Larroquette sets up the forthcoming events as true. This gives way to a chaotic soundtrack comprised of grinding metal, crunching dirt and animal moans; and the first image of the movie: that of a rotting corpse posed atop a headstone in such a way as to suggest our world is one of madness and the source of that madness has an unusual eye for art. He spends the next eighty-plus minutes tampering with audience sentimentality (i.e. during a scene that sees the disabled Franklin hurled down a hill while attempting to urinate) en route to creating a terrifying experience that exemplifies the savage cinema period.

THE EXORCIST (1973) Directed by William Friedkin
An easy choice and one that will appear on most scariest movies lists. As a child who spent many Sunday mornings in church, I found the existence of heaven and hell motif extremely unnerving. The thought that Satan would assail from a mundane American household and utilize a twelve-year-old girl as artillery was wholly terrifying. The bilious images of Linda Blair spewing green-pea soup and karo syrup didn’t hurt either. I later came to appreciate Friedkin’s use of symbolism and imagery to build the good vs. evil theme.

THE EVIL DEAD (1982) Directed by Sam Raimi
Before he was a Hollywood superstar, Sam Raimi was producing cult horror pics recognized for their gore elements and vigorous techniques. Though among my favorite films of all time, it took me two sittings to get through this crude and violent masterpiece the first time around. Raimi’s wickedly inventive camera work continues to inspire me to this day.

POLTERGEIST (1982) Directed by Tobe Hooper
The most popular of Hooper’s film endeavors Poltergeist is also the film that provided him the most heartache as suggestions of Spielberg’s involvement resulted in his own abilities being called into question. On the surface the movie is a classic urban haunted-house story but on a deeper level it is an indictment of our reliance on television as a society. Poltergeist taps into every childhood phobia imaginable (fear of the dark, clowns, closets, shadows, storms, etc.) and forces younger viewers to consider the existence of a supernatural dimension.

HALLOWEEN (1978) Directed by John Carpenter
I was born January 9, 1980. So, minus eight days and some odd minutes, I lived every moment of that cheerful decade. Though I didn’t understand the socio-political goings ons that inspired it, the slasher genre was my introduction to horror. Halloween remains the preeminent boogeyman flick. I recall the first time I saw the movie. It was Halloween night. My sister was curled up around her candy-filled pillowcase on the living room floor, my mother was uttering words of protest from the other room (“You better not be watching something that will give you nightmares”) and I was entranced by the images on the TV. The thought that monsters were not just created by mad scientists or nuclear fallout and could be living next door was truly frightening. The ambiguous final moments of the picture are underrated and leave the viewer with the feeling that evil is out there...somewhere.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Directed by Wes Craven
Wes Craven redefined the slasher genre on two occasions. The first came in 1984 when he substituted the then familiar faceless, voiceless stalker on a mission with a sardonic, supernatural bad guy. His weapon of choice was truly disturbing and his victim-pool could seemingly include anybody as he preyed on those who fall asleep. The bloody special effects and spooky atmosphere made this adolescent nightmare all too real.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Directed by George A. Romero
A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Night of the Living Dead relies on stark black-and-white photography and documentary techniques to create the appearance of truth. Though its sequels exploit sanguinary displays to create humor, there is little to laugh about in this primitive yet unrelenting parable regarding the skepticism of mankind.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
I wholeheartedly bought into the Blair Witch phenomenon. A pseudo-documentary chronicling the adventures of three filmmakers who disappear into the woods of Maryland while researching the existence of an evil witch, the movie relies on the power of the unseen to create a series of genuinely gut-wrenching events. The picture’s scariest moments are devoid of a picture altogether, relying solely on sound and the imagination of the viewer to create dread within a darkened frame.

THE DESCENT (2005) Directed by Neil Marshall
A group of adventure-seeking women who take to investigating unexplored cave systems for pleasure have their latest excursion interrupted by a pack of monstrous cavern-dwellers in The Descent. Though the ravenous creatures are among the more frightening in recent memory and have influenced the design of those that amble through most creature-features released in The Descent’s wake, the scenes of the female leads squeezing through small portals in the rock wall create a harrowing sense of claustrophobia unmatched in cinema history.

LOST HIGHWAY (1997) Directed by David Lynch
Surreal nightmare from avant-garde director David Lynch. Though light on logic, the macabre atmosphere created via the picture’s unsettling visuals, stark color scheme and ominous score seize your attention throughout. The concept of someone breaking into your home and watching you while you sleep is still one of the most frightening ideas put to celluloid. A scene that witnesses a ghost-faced Robert Blake informing Bill Pullman that he is relaxing in his home while positioned at his side on the beach chills me to this day.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Top 10 Movies of 2008

Previously posted on myspace - back when people were reading myspace.

1. PARANOID PARK: The films of Gus Van Sant should be included on any high school film curriculum. Now well into his fifties, the American film director manages to capture the malaise and anxiety of adolescence more truthfully than filmmakers less separated from that stage of life. His Paranoid Park tells the tale of a teenage skateboarder’s involvement in an accidental homicide in a manner that is both lyrical and restrained and is simply put, the best movie of 2008.

2. GRAN TORINO: On the surface, Gran Torino is a classic Clint Eastwood picture along the same vein as Dirty Harry. However, while hard edged, the irritated war vet he plays here (Walt Kowalski) has more in common with the many-sided Will Munny brought to life in Unforgiven. While the supporting players prove to be little fore than cannon fodder for Walt’s racist jabs, Eastwood’s delivery is nothing short of brilliant.

3. MARTYRS: A revenge tale of sorts that keeps you guessing to the bitter, bloody end. A French production, Martyrs did not receive US distribution till early '09. Still, I thought it one of the best horror pics of the decade and felt it deserved inclusion on this list.

4. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: While audiences flocked to Twilight to the tune of $190 million, this Swedish vampire love story was thrust aside by distributors eager to Americanize it in the form of a 2010 remake. The simple story witnesses a browbeaten boy (Oskar) finding companionship in the town newbie (Eli), a girl who quickly proves to be a lot different than the other 11-year-olds in his school. Beautifully photographed and skillfully acted, LTROI is one of the more poignant horror movies in recent history.

5. THE WRESTLER: The Wrestler illustrates the emotional boundaries of humanity and resurrects the career of Mickey Rourke all while compelling remembrances of wrestling’s heyday. Its success can be attributed to Rourke’s heroic performance, Bruce Springsteen’s melancholy song and the ability of director Darren Aronofsky to remain reserved with a story that could have slid into the absurd. A prime example is in a scene utilized by the film’s trailer – as The Ram rehearses using tin trays as potential weapons on a convenience store clerk, the movie quickly transitions to more somber material.

6. WENDY AND LUCY: Director Kelly Reichardt retreats to the oft-used city of Portland to film Wendy and Lucy, a thin story in which Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a down-on-her-luck woman en route to Alaska to find work. Along the way, her car breaks down and she loses her only companion, a golden-haired mutt named Lucy. Magnificent in its meekness and inherent beauty, the elliptical story is undeniably intriguing. Williams's ability to sell despondency surpasses in splendor any performance by a female actor this year.

7. BAGHEAD: Four struggling actors retreat to a cabin in the woods where they set out to write the movie that will mark their big break. Their farcical story of a killer whose calling sign is wearing a bag over his head becomes all-too-real when a man wearing a bag over his head appears outside their window. A funny, sometimes scary send-up of independent filmmaking, the picture utilizes a free-moving camera and improvisational dialogue to fashion an experience that is both gritty and innocent.

8. MAN ON WIRE: This year’s Oscar winner for best documentary, Man on Wire examines tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring high wire routine carried out between the newly built twin towers. Its mere 90 minute running time flies by and the fact that there is no existing footage of the crime doesn’t detract at all from Petit’s remarkable feat. A more amazing documentary you aren’t likely to find.

9. AMERICAN TEEN: Dubbed the real life Breakfast Club, American teen chronicles the adventures of five Indiana youths throughout their senior year of high school. Despite the picture being a documentary, I found myself repeatedly praising the accuracy of the movie’s protagonists. Both mesmerizing and distressing, the movie should be witnessed by anybody working with adolescents.

10. PINAPPLE EXPRESS: In a year that saw a surplus of quality comedies, this classic stoner funny from team Apatow stands above all others. Seth Rogen stars as a pothead entangled in a murder mystery in a story that gets funnier with each viewing. Best exchange:
Red: Look at this. [He shows Denton his shaved armpits]
Red: You see this? You see that? There's no hair under here, bro.
Denton: What's the significance of that?
Red: It makes me aerodynamic when I fight. I can take danger.