Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Horror - Paul Corupe ""

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Favorite Underrated Horror - Paul Corupe

Paul Corupe is a writer, editor, salvager of cultural detritus. See: magazine, .com,, lecture series.
Head on over to his site and be mesmerized and enthralled by the glory of Canadian cinema:
Read him on twitter @PaulCorupe!

The Black Pit of Dr M (1959)
Classic Mexican horror films mean usually just one thing: fishing wire-suspended rubber bats, and lots of them. Despite a thriving genre cinema tradition south of the border, Mexican horror films of the 1950s and '60s are usually crudely filmed, rife with plodding dialogue and overly reliant on cheap plastic scares of the carnival spook house. Though admired by many for these very qualities (including myself!), Fernando Méndez's The Black Pit of Dr. M is still a revelation, a truly atmospheric chiller that compares favourably to then-contemporary Hollywood horror landmarks. In the film, a pair of physicians working in a mental asylum make a pact--the first one who dies will deliver a message to his former colleague from the other side to reveal how he may cheat death and live forever. After learning the secret, the remaining doctor gets a chance to try to evade the reaper rather suddenly when he's falsely accused of a murder and sentenced to hang. But his confidence that he can survive the hangman begins to erode, leaving him racked by madness and desperation as he ascends the gallows and places his neck in the noose. Set in a decrepit, shadowy sanitarium and awash in eerie death imagery, The Black Pit of Dr. M is a tragically unknown entry with exceptional art direction--particularly notable are a hallway of flailing arms coming from asylum cells and an execution shot entirely in silhouette. This poignant classic about one man's obsession with mortality manages to evoke fatalistic fears without resorting to the bobbing bat-on-a-wire of its contemporaries, and surely ranks among the finest, and most serious Mexican horror films ever made.

The Hypnotic Eye (1960)
There's something great about watching a horror film that suddenly sinks to a level of depravity you weren't expecting--whether it's a splash of unexpected gore or the depiction of some taboo atrocity that you imagine audiences of the day reeling at. Though similar to several cinematic terrors of its time, The Hypnotic Eye taps into that same childhood feeling of accidentally witnessing something forbidden, of losing your bearings when the story takes a hard turn into pure shock. The story, about a sadistic Svengali, starts with a queasy scene of a woman setting her hair on fire as just one of a rash of similar self-mutilations happening in the same area. Stumped, the police detective assigned to the case gets a break when he realizes all the victims attended a stage show by a hypnotist who bring victims under his control with a palm-sized blinking light--including the detective's girlfriend's best galpal, who returns home one evening and washes her face in a sink full of acid. Filmed in “Hypnomagic”, an eight-minute gimmick sequence in which the hypnotist attempts some simple mind tricks on the film audience, The Hypnotic Eye is a cramped, unflinchingly brutal work that wallows in exploitation excess. Featuring surprisingly off-putting make-up effects of scarred faces, missing eyeballs and disfigured bodies, these shots not only shocked audiences in a pre-Blood Feast world, they still manages to thrill today.

Don't Go In the House (1979)
The weird and wonderful Don’t Go in the House combines familiar slasher film tropes with another horror subgenre I love, the post-Psycho fad of films about damaged, mother-obsessed young men who turn to murder. Within just a few years of Michael Myers' trend-setting killing spree, we've already reached a stage where crazed loners are building fireproof torture rooms so they can BBQ victims to a nice crisp. Dan Grimaldi puts in a fascinating performance as Donny, the flamethrower-wielding killer whose boyhood fear and fascination with fire goes very, very wrong when he invites local girls over for some char-broiled fun. It's so absurd as to be beyond any sort of reality, but Grimaldi's performance keeps the film somewhat grounded, putting a believable spin on the awkward, disco-obsessed virgin whose neuroses spiral out of control when his mother passes away. But what's most notable about the film, besides the unique flamethrower attacks, are the exceedingly grim kill sequences. Like to cheer when Jason or Freddy corners their latest annoying teen victim? There's nothing to laugh about here--the death of Donny's girlfriends, sometimes chained up and doused in gasoline, are extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant. But it's these scenes that give the film a disturbing edge that sears certain shots in your memory when cookie-cutter slashers are long forgotten--especially when the authorities make their way into the house and see the charred corpses of the women he killed.

Hangover Square (1945)
John Brahm isn't a particularly well-known director, but he should be. Though the 1940s were a lean time for horror cinema, Brahm's handful of noir-inspired chillers easily outpace the Universal monster sequels and the poverty row schlock the period was known for. This is especially true for Brahm's two collaborations with Laird Cregar, a fledgling horror icon who died on the cusp of stardom not long after Hangover Square. Following Brahm's enjoyable remake of The Lodger, Hangover Square is arguably the director's finest work, in which Cregar plays a tortured pianist who goes into a trance when he hears certain loud noises. Eventually believing that he is brutally killing people while under the music's spell, he's racked with crippling guilt and goes to great pains to cover up the crimes. The film gets by on some wonderfully cinematic Hitchcock-inspired sequences (a few of which Brahm later reshot for his 1950s Vincent Price shocker The Mad Magician), including Cregar trying to sneak a dead body disguised as an effigy to the top of a Guy Fawkes day bonfire to dispose of it. But the film's final sequence, an 11-minute piano concerto, brings together all the film's themes into a thrilling, swirling clash of terror, music and memory. Though Cregar's the focus, its really Brahm who's conducting here, in image and sound--using complex tracking shots to bear down on Cregar as he smashes out discordant chords that trigger his repressed memories of violence. It's a fascinating, even operatic conclusion that elevates the film far above the horror films that often define the era.

The UFO Incident (1975)
Most of the films I've picked rely on atmosphere, stylistic technical work and exploitation thrills to whip audiences into a frightened or uncomfortable state, but there's more to making an effective horror film than just the craft of the people behind the camera. Featuring particularly intense performances by James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons, The UFO Incident manges to appeal to more than conspiracy buffs and amateur paranormal researchers and highlights the importance and power of dramatic horror acting. Jones and Parsons play real-life couple Barney and Betty Hill, whose alleged alien abduction in 1961 became the subject of much scrutiny over the last 50 years. Almost the entirety of this 1975 TV movie takes place at the Hills' hypnosis sessions during which they recall that fateful evening and transition through an incredible range of emotions, from anger, sorrow, embarrassment and even insecurities over their interracial marriage. But it's the description of their abduction that is particularly scary, as they draw viewers in with their heartstopping, hysterical descriptions of being taken aboard and subjected them to humiliating experiments (including needles shoved in Betty's navel); it's akin to skillful storytellers taking leading you through a scary campfire tale and using their deepest fears and anxieties to evoke yours. In terms of the film, whether the abduction actually took place is irrelevant--although set essentially in one office with just three actors (augmented with occasional flashbacks), The UFO Incident still manages to produce more chills than the majority of horror films released at the time, though it has never received a legitimate home video release.

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