Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Horror - Jon Abrams ""

Friday, November 1, 2013

Favorite Underrated Horror - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams – no relation to JJ – is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who wrote the current cover story, about aging action heroes, for Paracinemamagazine, and has been writing a daily column about horror movies this month on Daily Grindhouse.  Jon’s complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @jonnyabomb.


THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)
A ventriloquist, a strongman, and a little person leave the traveling sideshow after the little person assaults a child, and the three of them go on a crime spree in New York City, dressed as an old woman, a baby, and their helper. Lon Chaney plays the ventriloquist, Professor Echo. Victor McLaglen (GUNGA DIN, FORT APACHE) plays the strongman. Hercules. Harry Earles(FREAKS, THE WIZARD OF OZ) plays Tweedledee, maybe the meanest member of the three.  Obviously this is already the greatest story ever, but then it goes and adds a giant ape to the mix and becomes something truly transcendent.
Old Lon Chaney movies are where I find my zen.  You can never really go wrong, but when you combine Lon Chaney with director Tod Browning (DRACULA, FREAKS) you’ve hit the jackpot.  THE UNHOLY THREE isn’t really a horror movie, more of a crime melodrama, but I’m including it here A)because Browning and Chaney are synonyms for the horror genre and B) because I love it so much and I want you to love it too.  Browning, Chaney, and Earles remade the film as a talkie in 1930 (McLaglen had gone on to things like John Ford movies) and the giant ape, which was a chimpanzee in the original, was later played by a man in a gorilla costume. Depends on what you’re looking for.

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)
Here I find myself in the unfortunate position of spoiling a movie early on simply by including it on a list of horror films –since for a long stretch, the story of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would not lead one to conclude it should be filed anywhere other than the Westerns shelf of the library.  But, at the very least, Clint Eastwood as director and star uses some elements of the ghost-story genre in the construction of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.  The unnamed gunslinger appears out of the haze of the frontier heat on his way into a town that he eventually paints blood-red, literally, and the wailing score is at all times more horror-movie than Morricone Clint’s second film as director was heavily influenced by the styles of his mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.  It was the first of many sly and bold deconstructions of his own “nameless gunfighter” persona – this is no hero, but a ruthless avenging angel.  And maybe “angel” isn’t remotely the right term.  Actually it definitely isn’t.

PHENOMENA (1985)
I’ve already written plenty about this movie before – for this very site!  But I can’t resist including it on this list.  I love this movie so much.  It’s an unconventional film for Dario Argentoto make, but then it’d be an unconventional film coming from anyone.  PHENOMENA is sort of a dark fairy tale buttressed by the worst parts of real life, wherein the lovely princess (Jennifer Connelly) is the neglected daughter of a famous actor who is sent to a Swiss boarding school.  There have been a string of murders in the area, and the local police have turned to a disabled entomologist (Donald Pleasence) for help identifying some of the maggots infesting the remains of the latest victim.  Since Jennifer also has an affinity for insects, she ends up befriending the bug expert, who has a chimpanzee lab assistant by the way.  So this is a movie where young Jennifer Connelly, an old Donald Pleasence, a bunch of bugs, and an ape team up to solve crimes.  With music by, among others, Goblin, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead.  You’ll never, ever guess who the murderer is.  You’ve never, ever seen a movie like this one.  And you can resist it… how exactly?

WITCHBOARD (1986)
Not to be mean, but this movie would fit better on a list of Underrated Comedies than one of Underrated Horror Films.  It stars one-time music video star Tawny Kitaen as a young woman caught in a love triangle between two guys with mullets.  As if that weren’t freaky enough, one of them busts out a Ouija board at a party, and summons a malevolent spirit that proceeds to torment the trio for the rest of the movie, at one point possessing Tawny Kitaen and forcing her to writhe around on the hood of a car.  That last part doesn’t actually happen but then again, it could have.  It’s very hard – some might say impossible – to make a Ouija board scary.  Maybe Ouija boards are a little creepy if you use one at a slumber party when you’re an eleven-year-old girl.  I’ve never been one of those so I couldn’t say.  What I do know is that there is a ton of unintentional humor here – or if it was intentional, first-time writer-director Kevin Tenney is a genius.  His next movie was 1988’s NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, which has a cult following, two sequels, and a 2009 remake.  My favorite of his many horror movies is PINOCCHIO’S REVENGE, about a malevolent wooden puppet.  I’m not kidding.  I like the idea of a guy who’s out there making esoteric, individualistic horror flicks  it’d be hard to call these movies great or even scary, but all the ones I’ve seen have been totally entertaining, none more than WITCHBOARD, which can get me laughing harder than BAD GRANDPA.

THE BLOB (1988)
The Blob is the Rodney Dangerfield of horror creatures: No respect.  Too scary and gross to be a contemporary of Godzilla and the giant monsters, too silly and uncommunicative to rank with the vampires, ghosts, and werewolves.  Let's be honest. The Blob is a big pink Jell-O mold from outer space. It's hard to make that frightening. Screenwriters Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell dive right into the problem by treating The Blob like a contagion, twenty years before CONTAGION. If just one drop of that Blob gets on you, you're toast.
Another strength of THE BLOB '90 is its lovably unlikely protagonist. Fans of movies where the football star saves the day are bound to be disappointed. Fans of the heroic cheerleader are more apt to be pleased. I remember reading somewhere that Joss Whedon kept a picture of Shawnee Smith from THE BLOB as inspiration while working on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. That makes sense. It should be said that NIGHT OF THE CREEPS gave us the adorable spectacle of Jill Whitlow hoisting up a flamethrower -- THE BLOB takes the script-flipping of gender roles a step further by giving Shawnee a machine gun and letting her go to town. She's the emotional center of the film, and its bedrock.  Movies don't always do right by our best girl heroes: Last I heard Shawnee Smith was doing time in SAW movies and on the Charlie Sheen show. That's no place for a great lady.  In THE BLOB, Shawnee Smith proves herself to be the Dame Judi Dench of horror heroines.

LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
As far as strict classifications go, LOST HIGHWAY is more of an elliptical art film (which goes heavy on the L.A. noir elements) than a horror movie.  Try telling me that in 1997, when friends and I saw it twice in theaters just because it was so goddamned freaky, or when I creeped myself out listening to the soundtrack while driving down a dark highway.  When my friends and I were younger we reveled in absurdities – the less sense something made, the more invigorating it seemed to be.  Then you become a film major and you start looking to ascribe meaning to everything. I don’t know that you can make sense out of a movie like LOST HIGHWAY.  It seems to be the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who is arrested for killing his wife (Patricia Arquette) and then has a psychotic break, wherein he imagines himself as a younger man (Baltazar Getty) being mentored by a violent gangster (Robert Loggia), only to fall in love with the gangster’s girl (Patricia Arquette).  In both storylines the protagonist is haunted by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake in ghostly pale makeup) who seems to know everything and be everywhere.
But is that what happens?  Beats me.  Every time you think you’ve teased out a cohesive narrative, you remember one out-of-place element and the theory unravels.  Best to stop thinking so hard and just experience LOST HIGHWAY as David Lynch’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles, presaging the equally creepy MULHOLLAND DRIVE  in 2001.  What adds to the hellish landscape of LOST HIGHWAY is its proximity to disturbing real-life elements, such as the cameo from a once-vibrant and now clearly-ill Richard Pryor, to the presence of Michael Massee, a terrific character actor unfortunately best known for being on the set of THE CROW when Brandon Lee was killed, to most upsetting of all, the recurring specter of Robert Blake,the one-time child actor who ended up on trial for allegedly killing his wife.  Which, you’ll notice, puts us right back inside the plot of LOST HIGHWAY.  We can’t escape.

THE RUINS (2008)
The source material for THE RUINS is a creepy, suspenseful, un-put-down-able novel by Scott Smith, who also wrote A SIMPLE PLAN, which is also a mighty underrated thriller in its own right.  Basically, THE RUINS is about evil vines.  We’ve seen scores upon scores of villains from nature, but the lion’s share of them are fauna, not flora.  There aren’t a lot of villainous plants out there.  Off the top of my head, there’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, and THE HAPPENING, but all of those are comedies.  THE RUINS is the rare legitimately-spooky horror movie where vegetation is the main source of scares.  The film follows a solid cast of young people – Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Jonathan Tucker, Joe Anderson, and the painfully cute Laura Ramsey – as they take a trip down to Mexico and enter some remote Mayan ruins which turn out to be no place for gringos.  Director Carter Smith (no relation to the book’s author) maintains a strong sense of creeping terror, but the real star of the show is master cinematographer Darius Khondji, probably most famous for SEVEN, who knows exactly how to deploy shadows and light for maximum impact.

SPLINTER (2008)
Hey, remember that scene in THE THING where Kurt Russell has to slice the finger of each of his coworkers for a blood test in order to determine which one of them is The Thing?  Remember that scene in EVIL DEAD 2 where Bruce Campbell has to lop off his own hand and then the evil possessed hand returns to torment the rest of him?  Do you like horror in its squeamiest of varieties?  Then this is a movie for you.  
Ably directed and co-written by VFX veteran Toby Wilkins, SPLINTER is admirably simple and efficient.  After their camping trip ends prematurely due to a malfunctioning tent, a young couple (Jill Wagner and Paolo Costanzohits the road to find a motel.  They’re hijacked by a criminal and his cracked-out girlfriend.  So that outlaw couple takes the civilian couple hostage – we’re in a crime movie, okay? -- then all of a sudden the car rolls over a dog.  Or a porcupine.  Or something. Whatever it is, it’s angry.  The human beings head to a gas station to regroup, only to find that something – a something related to the something they ran over – has invaded the area. Bad, ugly things proceed to happen, most often to human extremities.
This movie is fun because the suspense works.  The characters have to quickly think and act their way through a series of set-pieces as they are besieged by an undefinable creature, and though I’ve seen this kind of set-up so many times before, I still couldn’t say for sure how it’d end up until it finally ended. Energy is also provided by the tremendous character actor Shea Whigham in the role of the outlaw. He brings an entertaining,wackadoobizarro Bill Pullman kind of energy to the role.  You may have since seen him in Boardwalk Empire, TAKE SHELTER, SAVAGES, MACHETE, FAST & FURIOUS 6, and BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS.  
Whigham’s eccentric badassitude is well-matched by the movie’s creature concept, which is awesome and original, the latter adjective being especially rare in horror movies.  I don’t want to reveal a thing, except that the monster is a good idea, one that I don’t remember seeing on film before, and I wanted to see more of it.  The creature is creepy, gross, and believably lethal – what more could a movie like this need?

BLACK DEATH (2011)
Chris Smith (CREEP, SEVERANCE, TRIANGLE) may actually be the single most underrated horror filmmaker out there, having now made four dramatically different but consistently engaging dark-genre films of which BLACK DEATH is arguably the most ambitious yet. A highbrow period piece, a lowbrow men-on-a-mission film, and a holy-terror picture which invites comparison to THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL and THE WICKER MAN -- yes, it really is all those things.
Sean Bean, a great actor who's never been afraid of how likable he comes off, plays a determined holy warrior in plague-era Britain leading a band of opportunists and scumbags on a quest to find and kill a rumored necromancer, one who brings the dead back to life. Eddie Redmayne is the young, not-quite-pure monk (he's already broken a couple vows when the movie starts) who is recruited to guide them. I'm not going to hand out any more plot except to say that the amazing Carice Van Houten (BLACK BOOK, Game Of Thrones) plays the necromancer. Good? Evil?I'm not sure even the movie answers that delineation definitively. The glory of BLACK DEATH is that there's plenty of moral, historical, and theological subtext to contemplate if you're so inclined. If you want to sit back, relax, and be disturbed by a creepy story, this movie's got you covered that way too.

CITADEL (2012)
What is special about CITADEL is that it comes from such a personal place. So much of the best horror does.  Writer-director Ciaran Foy shot the film in Scotland on a modest budget, based on his own experiences with agoraphobia after surviving a brutal attack in his youth.  In the movie, a young man (Aneurin Barnard) and his very pregnant wife are assaulted by a gang of hooded figures in the apartment complex where they live.  The wife doesn’t ultimately make it, although the baby does, and the young man barricades himself and his infant child inside his apartment, leaving only under great duress, petrified that those figures will return.  Of course, they eventually do, and the question is, are they even human?  
I like the intimate, personal, highly emotional feel of CITADEL, abetted as it is by warm and committed performances, evocative imagery, terrific use of atmospheric locations, and a sparse score.  There are stretches where you can’t be sure the horror isn’t all in the protagonist’s mind, even as the worst is happening.  I really liked the supporting work of Wunmi Mosaku, as a sweet nurse who tries to help Tommy even though she isn’t fully able to believe him, and especially James Cosmo, best known to American audiences as Renton’s dad from TRAINSPOTTING, as a belligerent priest fond of four-letter words who knows plenty about what those hooded characters are really about.  I’d describe CITADEL as the nightmare inversion of ATTACK THE BLOCK, or else as a UK update of THE BROOD, especially because both of those comparisons invite certain thematic preoccupations worth contemplating, but neither of those fully describe what makes CITADEL stand apart.  It’s the potent sense of conviction, so often lacking in modern horror, and so promising in the way of whatever project Ciaran Foy attempts to take on next.

No comments: