James David Patrick is a writer of underappreciated fiction and non - with a distracting, lifelong habit of movie-watching. He is currently orchestrating #Bond_age_, the James Bond social media project (housed at www.007hertzrumble.tumblr.com) and blogs about various other nonsense at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. (Please) stalk him on twitter: @007hertzrumble and @30hertzrumble.
More so than any genre, horror lends itself to word of mouth and belated discovery. Horror is, perhaps, the Everyman Genre. Accessible due to its ability to appeal to a basic human desire: to be thrilled. Enjoying the thrill brought about by a truly scary movie is a cathartic release, the meeting of fear and pleasure in an environment that we know, perhaps unconsciously at times, is totally safe. These movies might be gory and shocking, funny and totally f’ed up. The breadth of the horror genre spans a wide tonal spectrum, and the fact that these flicks are often made on the cheap, a few friends, some corn syrup and a camera adds even more to the formula of emotional release. Everyone’s particular slice of the genre feels like his or her own. Friends passing along battered VHS tapes, dubs, and foreign-made bootlegs. Things changed in the DVD-era and VHS players became devices non-grata. Those horror movies made on the cheap and spread by word of mouth were not necessarily carted over to the new digital era…
But… there might just be a happy ending to this tale yet. Of late things are beginning to look up. Niche labels, like Shout!/Scream Factory, Blue Underground, Warner Archive, (the now defunct) No Shame, Anchor Bay and Synapse among others have kept the dream of the VHS-era alive by releasing lesser-known and foreign gems to a new generation (and the generations that may have just forgotten them). Still there are hundreds (thousands?) of forgotten titles waiting to be released and reintroduced to modern horror junkies. I haven’t had a working VHS player in many years so I’ll let others sing the praises of long lost analog terror. For my list, I’ll stick to the movies that I’ve seen recently enough to praise without concern that my memories are clouded by too much of that blood-soaked nostalgia.
Dracula (1931 Spanish)
Once considered lost, this simultaneous remake (simulmake?) of the Lugosi Dracula outshines the main attraction. This Spanish production was filmed at night on the same sets used for the English version. Director George Melford would watch the dailies of his American counterpart and figure out ways to better camera angles, lighting, editing, etc. The result is a more artistically shot film that better develops the plot (the Lugosi version barely bothers with frivolous trappings like plot) and allows the shots of “horror” to linger a little bit longer. It also doesn’t hurt that Conde Drácula played by Carlos Villarias is a big hornball and the ladies are more busty. He’s not as effective at Lugosi as being menacing (he’s more Andy Kaufman than Count Dracula) or sexually suggestive but he also chews less scenery than Lugosi, resulting in a more faithful reproduction of Bram Stoker’s character. If only we could put Lugosi into this Spanish version it would be the best of all worlds.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Don’t try too hard to find meaning in the title or you’ll go cross-eyed. The title is a recall to Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo classic The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. And although the director and stars (Edwige Fenech and creepy Ivan Rassimov) return for Your Vice the two movies share giallo DNA and nothing more. The thing with this flick is that logic and causality go right out the window. What you will find is a slice madness lifted right out of the nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe. Your Vice is a perverse exercise in paranoia and atmosphere. There’s the requisite stalking and slashing and ruminations on the male gaze but Martino elevates the material above mere base thrill. He fills his visuals with bright primary colors set over a decadent palette of gray and black. He also knows how to showcase his female stars… and by that I mean in various states of poetic disrobe – a staple, if not requirement of the genre. Martino’s moral void containing many forms of sexual and violent perversity conveys the turpitude of the characters that inhabit the space. Giallo fans might not consider this film underrated or underappreciated, but it just doesn’t seem like mainstream horror fans have embraced Your Vice with the fervent passion that it deserves. Did I mention it stars Edwidge Fenech? That alone should be enough to warrant a viewing.
The Entity (1982)
Ghost rape might seem like a subject gone comically over the top, perhaps a segment of Scary Movie 7. And indeed at face value and taken out of context, the notion does offer some levity. Based on a supposedly true story that inspired Frank De Felita’s book about the events, The Entity, however, is a chilling exercise in less-is-more horror extremism. The “assaults” prove to be graphic and disturbing without actually showing anything altogether graphic at all. The film hinges on Barbara Hershey’s performance. It is her terror and her fear that conveys the horror, and the result is something, in my mind, more disturbing and more terrifying than any average slasher flick. At the very least I know that Martin Scorcese agrees with me. He put The Entity on his list of Top 11 Scariest Horror Movies of all time. It’s not a movie I often want to revisit, but when I do I’m always amazed by its ability to burrow under my skin and stay there for days.
It was back in my sophomore year of high school when I rented a tape of Suspiria from Blockbuster Video. Suffice to say, my mind was blown. I’d seen most of the requisite slashers and stalkers, all of the monsters and my share of gore, but this… this was something wholly different and beyond anything I’d imagined. Naturally when a movie lover discovers a revelation, a binge follows shortly thereafter. None of the video stores in my area carried other movies by Dario Argento. In fact, the only guy I came across that had even seen an Argento flick was this dude that worked at Blockbuster Music (remember when being able to listen to any CD in the store was this surreal privilege?). Well this guy told me about an Argento flick called Terror at the Opera… that it wasn’t really available anywhere but you could get a bootleg from Revok.com that sold dubs of movies out-of-print or unavailable in the States. Truth be told, I’m still a little hazy on the legality of the whole thing… but I immediately placed an order for four tapes (I believe the Buy 3 Get 1 Free deal is still going strong 18 years later). By the end of the next month I’d tracked down and watched nearly the entire catalog of Argento essentials and then finally that dub of Terror at the Opera arrived. Opera was the feather in the cap. I’d enjoyed all of these gory, stylish slashers and creepy Italian flicks with the synth scores and the beautiful women. Who wouldn’t at 17? But Opera blew me away. The eyeball motif, the watching. The shocking glimpse through the peephole. The gothic atmosphere. The ravens. The hidden nooks and corners of the opera house. Blood and gore elevated into high art. After Suspiria, this film had to be Argento’s other masterpiece. I held it in high regards, forcing it upon unsuspecting guests at Halloween parties and praising it to horror fans, many of who had never heard of Argento (the horror!). And then a funny thing happened. I came to realize that nobody really felt the same way about Opera that I did. “It was… okay,” they’d say, “but have you seen Deep Red?” Or Inferno. Or Tenebrae. I still stand by Opera. I still have my old VHS dub from Revok (and of course now the DVD) and I still call it Argento’s other masterpiece.
Critters 2 (1988)
In the mid-to-late 80’s movies about small ravenous monsters (be the furry, slimy or both) who killed in packs became de rigueur. The mainstream success of Gremlins caused studios to greenlight any similar franchise with the hope of making a quick buck through this new exploding home video business. Actors were optional. The more puppets that required fur or ooze the better. Thanks to American capitalism at peak performance horror fans were treated to four Critters movies, four Ghoulies, three Munchies, two Hobgoblins, and two Troll flicks. At one point (check the mid-90’s), the Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever Guide had an entire section devoted to “Gremlins and Its Rip-Offs.” Of all of these movies, Critters 2 reigns. The original Critters was simple fun. Furry bowling balls attacked a small farm community. A paint-by-numbers plot. The novelty of the puppetry provided sufficient entertainment, but a funny thing happened along the way to an even less-inspired sequel. Critters 2 developed its own sick, self-aware sense of humor. It would be easy to dismiss all of these movies as unoriginal and uninspired, but resist the temptation. Consider that David Twohy made his screenwriting debut on Critters 2 before going on to pen other underseen or underappreciated gems like Warlock, Below, Terminal Velocity, Below and Pitch Black. Oh, he also wrote a little-known flick known as The Fugitive.
Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man (1994)
Every Friday during high school I read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for any blurbs about the new movies that had finally opened in town. Despite being the third most-filmed town in the U.S. behind New York and Los Angeles, Pittsburgh is a third-tier market for movie releases, probably on par with Omaha. No offense, Omaha, but I really think we should have dibs. The sad fact is that some of these more limited releases just never open here. So, to my shock one random Friday in 1996 I notice a two-paragraph blurb in the PPG raving about this random Italian zombie movie called Cemetery Man. I didn’t take stock of any of its vitals. I read “zombie” and many words that translated into “awesome” and rang up my buddy Andre and told him we were going to The Denis Theater for zombie flick. The reason we were friends is that he didn’t ask any questions. He just said he’d pick me up in an hour.
The Denis was once a grand old movie house built in the 1930’s but that grand old theater had been split into four screens (it’s been closed for almost a decade now but being refurbished by a non-profit organization). Cemetery Man was playing upstairs, in the tiny bandbox theater in which you sat above the screen and looked down over a railing to watch your movie. As ridiculous as the setup was, it was my favorite place in Pittsburgh to catch an obscure flick. Whether that realization came as a result of my instant love affair with this truly unique Euro-trash, zombie fairy-tale horror comedy, I don’t know. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen (or have seen since). Francesco Dellamorte, the overworked, underappreciated cemetery keeper works long hours sending zombies back to their graves. He lives in a small Italian town called Buffalora with his deformed assistant Gnaghi. Francesco is a dispirited character with a bleak (and deservedly so) outlook on life (and the afterlife) but he’s also much more than just a walking buzzkill. The horror genre isn’t often associated with great acting. Style and artistic vision? Sure. Solid screenwriting? On occasion. So perhaps Dellamorte Dellamore’s most remarkable attribute is the stamp left on it by Rupert Everett. He just gets it. And in a movie of such singular vision, it would be easy to miss the mark entirely. The zombie effects and gore are effective and gruesome without being comically excessive or hokey. And among many stunning scenes in the film, Anna Falchi writhing naked on grave markers (cementing visually the Shakespearean ties between sex and death) certainly is among the most indelible. Director Michele Soavi started out working under Dario Argento but took a path altogether his own. It is a shame that his talents have not earned him a shred of the fame (or prolific resumes) rivaling the Italian godfathers of horror – Argento, Bava and Fulci. Soavi made three excellent horror flicks (the other two being The Church and Stage Fright, both of which I considered for this list) before his 40th birthday. He didn’t work for five years after the release of Dellamorte Dellamore and thereafter became primarily a director of Italian TV movies. Please bless us with more crafty horror flicks, Michele Soavi.
Edward Furlong had a brief reign of terror as a leading actor in the wake of Terminator 2. Thereafter he slipped comfortably into supporting roles and B-movies… lots and lots of B-movies (including the John Waters flick Pecker). Both of which better suited his tic-laded brand of acting. During those more innocent mid-1990’s he starred in this head-trip horror flick about a kid that discovers a virtual-reality computer game that customizes the players’ gameplay to deliver his or her own personalized brand of terror. And as it turns out, the terror that happens in the VR world has become real! The hell you say! Freddy Kruger meets Lawnmower Man. And you might be saying “But but but this sounds a lot like the underseen Kathryn Bigelow flick Strange Days. What a rip off!” Well, Brainscan predated the release of Bigelow’s movie by more than a year. It is true that Brainscan is a dated exercise in 90’s nostalgia… and at the time it was a decent scare… but now I watch it (90’s nostalgia firmly in hand) to appreciate the satire of the genre and of the video game generation and it’s critics (hello, Tipper Gore). It’s a creative exercise within the bounds of the genre’s requisite tropes. And again, I’d like to highlight the writer of the screenplay. First time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker went on to deliver David Fincher’s Se7en and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in the years immediately following Brainscan. This little horror flick that barely grossed more than $4mil at the box office turned some important heads. I saw it at least twice in the theater and forced at least five or six others in with me so I’d like to think I’m at least responsible for the breach of the $4mil mark.
Session 9 (2001)
I don’t easily get spooked by horror flicks anymore. I’m usually too concerned with the nuts and bolts of the story, how the film fails to distance itself from its predecessors to bother with the raw emotion associated with terror. I’m even less startled when watching these movies at home. There’s just too much distraction, too much opportunity to be pulled out of the moment. All of this probably explains why I more often prefer my horror movies to be something above and beyond mere genre trope. Once that connection with the screen is broken, honest scares are nearly impossible. But this movie… shit. Messed me up for days.
I watched Session 9 because I dug Brad Anderson’s Next Stop Wonderland. Totally the… same… thing. I’m jealous I didn’t think of this analogy first, but in the AV Club write-up on Session 9, they made a connection between the effectiveness of Session 9 and the tenants of the Dogme 95 manifesto. If you’re unfamiliar with Dogme, it was a pact between a group of Danish directors (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg among them) that created a set of extraordinarily restrictive principles for the sake of purity in filmmaking. Rule #1 was “Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.” These rules often seemed arbitrary and extreme, needlessly curbing a filmmaker’s creative mojo. The AV Club makes the point here to stress that the main character in Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is the abandoned hospital (the Danvers State Insane Asylum in Danvers, MA that closed in 1992) and Anderson uses the setting and its found objects to his full advantage. Much of the history of the real hospital has been recycled in the film. Knowing this while watching makes Session 9 even more unnerving. Anderson plainly recycles camerawork and tension from The Shining. You can either criticize or recognize the dexterity in understanding precisely what made parts of Kubrick’s masterpiece so terrifying. Session 9 does not resort to easy scares or shock; it builds steadily in fits and spurts to a crescendo until you, like the characters have no way to flee Danvers. Many cinephiles have seen Session 9 by now, but I’ve reserved a place for it here because it’s still doesn’t seem to have been indoctrinated into the horror movie canon. Time to change that.
Oh David Twohy, king of underappreciated horror flicks. Twohy appeared earlier as the writer of Critters 2. I also considered singing the praises of his highly entertaining Warlock flicks, but I kept coming back to Below. It would be pretty easy to assume that you missed Below when it was released in theaters because of U-571 hangovers. I kid. It wasn’t even released in theaters. Dimension Films dumped it straight to video despite the fact that it was directed by Twohy, who last directed the cult success Pitch Black, and written by Darren Aronofsky whose Requiem for a Dream had been nominated for an Academy Award and won BFI Movie of the Year. Below, however, had no immediately recognizable faces. Bruce Greenwood’s biggest role to date had been as Robert Kennedy in Thirteen Days and Matt Davis was the douche in Legally Blonde. So we’re left with the component pieces of the story for marketing: a U.S. submarine during WWII goes on a routine rescue mission when the crew starts to experience sensory delusions, psychological terror and random death. No monsters. No rippers or slashers stow away on the boat. It’s about men and their fragile minds and ghosts on WWII submarines. And that alone (nevermind the Twohy/Aronofsky cred) was more than enough to pique my interest. Below becomes a textbook example of how to build tension through claustrophobia and unknown terror. Below isn’t shocking or downright terrifying, but like Session 9, it uses its environment (submarine as haunted house) to maximum effect. The current Blu-ray release of Below (a Miramax/Echo Bridge effort that pairs it with Darkness) does the film a grave disservice by using an inferior 2.0 stereo soundtrack. While the picture has improved, the sound editing and mixing remains the lifeblood of any submarine picture – especially one that must elicit jumps and spooks along the way. Until someone decides to release Below on Blu with the original 5.1 mix found, stick with the lesser picture-quality on the DVD.
I’d never heard of this one until its recent release by Olive Films. If Carl Theodor Dreyer directed a giallo inspired by Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou you’d have something close to Amer. Three carnal moments define Ana’s life. It is these moments that draw her back to the childhood home haunted by these memories as she wavers in and out of Technicolor fantasies. Or are the violent sexual fantasies actually her reality? Directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani have clearly studied their giallo tropes. The gloved hand, the faceless stalker, the lust and desire of the male gaze. But the camera is held at such proximity to distort the perspective of the viewer as well. So close in fact that Cattet and Forzani place the viewer inside Ana’s head for most of the film. You and Ana become one perspective in a playground of theory and identity. Film theorists will have a field day with the swift, unnerving conclusion and genre fans will find plenty to admire about the confidence with which the directors handle their affection of the gialli of the 1970’s. A black laced hand. The wind lifting Ana’s dress and kissing her pale thighs. A razor blade nearly breaking skin. Terror conveyed through the extreme close up of a fear-stricken eye. Amer is more than just the sum of its disparate parts. It’s avant-garde visual poetry of the most macabre.
A few more quick picks because I just can’t resist:
Warlock / Warlock: The Armageddon
Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight
Masque of the Red Death (perhaps not underseen, but it’s not sufficiently appreciated for it’s spectacular adaptation of the Poe source material)
The Night Walker