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So long, and thanks for all the fish!
Every time October rolls around, I like to find a nice set of viewing material to get in tune with the darker sides of the human psyche. While it’s fun to bask occasionally in the gore-filled schlock of a slasher grade B-movie, I tend to prefer my horror movies with a capital “M”. It is possible for a movie to maintain artistic merit while scaring an audience shitless, after all.
This year, I found myself gravitating toward some old favorites and some fresh material. The following six choices possess a medley of strong cinematography, good characters, strong themes, and chilling moments.
The Descent is a film by British writer/director Neil Marshall loosely (and I do mean loosely) based on the Jeff Long novel of the same name. Any basic description of this movie reeks of cliche; a group of hot women venture into a cave only to be met by grisly creatures caught somewhere in the evolutionary spectrum between humans and bats. Typical schlock, right? Wrong.
Marshall manages to circumvent negative expectations by placing specific emphasis on development of his female characters. He makes them feel like actual people; a feat that feels almost revolutionary in this particular sub-genre. He takes it a step further by creating a genuine, subtle tension between them that may actually be more frightening than the creatures themselves. Finally, he gives them the adequate chops to feel like actual outdoor-enthusiasts. Far from being hapless victims, they are tough as nails, perhaps having more to fear from each other than the dangers of the cave.
Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One in is less a horror story and more a sort of inverse fairy tale. Oskar, a bullied young boy, finds his life is changed forever when he befriends his new neighbor, a peculiar, androgynous adolescent named Eli. Things are, of course, not all they seem.
The concept was unique enough to prompt an immediate America remake, but the film also shines in its cinematography. Every shot beautifully captures the desolate, post-industrial landscape of a blue collar Scandinavian winter. The opening sequence, an eerily beautiful abyss of gently billowing snow, sets the mood beautifully.While I don’t speak enough Swedish to evaluate the acting with complete certainly, I will say that the children who make up the backbone of the movie were talented enough to maintain this mood.
Hell, even the trailer radiates a certain sense of stark beauty.
I shouldn’t get too caught up in the aesthetics, though. There are a few scenes of cringe-worthy, gruesome horror. As adorable as puppy love is, decapitation is still decapitation. Watch the movie if you want to understand what I mean.
The Stephen King inspired 1408 is not so much a horror movie as a movie that happens to have some horror in it. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a cynical paranormal writer who specializes in throwing himself into famously haunted locations and documenting the banality of his experiences. When he receives a minimalistic letter informing him to stay the hell away from room 1408 at New York’s Dolphin hotel, he reacts as basic human psychology would dictate.
Samuel L. Jackson soon informs us that 1408 is “an evil fucking room.” This is a simple, accurate description. The room knows all of your darkest secrets, all of your past failings, all of your insecurities; and it’s just the type of jerk to torment you with them endlessly. The movie’s brand of psychological torture is successful because Enslin is an interesting enough character to create some stirring situations. Cusack’s performance, which wades exquisitely from skepticism to shock to weakness to resolve, is outstanding. He, not the room, is the center of the story. While the overall experience may feel mild to true horror enthusiasts, it’s a good, solid movie with some genuinely fascinating and unnerving moments.
Okay okay, so there isn’t a storied history of great game-based cinema. Paul Anderson tries sometimes, but generally the joys of the gaming medium get lost in translation. Silent Hill, however, has some merit. The plot is merely serviceable. A desperate mother rushes to an abandoned West Virginia town that appears to be the source of nightmarish psychological torment of her adopted daughter. Fair enough.
Really, though, it’s the production value that got it on this list. The creature design, makeup, special effects, and incredible work of several dozen dancers push this out of B-movie territory. Director Chistophe Gans also applies a consistent philosophy in the art direction. It emphasizes grotesque over gross out, and roots its mise en scene in classic aesthetic values. Still frames have an oil painting quality to them, and the clever mixture of 35mm and HD digital footage creates a stark difference between the scenes associated with reality and the hellish nightmare that creeps over the town.
Seriously, watch this:
There was blood, sweat, and tears placed into creating the horrific illusion of a town gone literally to hell. I’m a sucker for artists who work hard, and the effort that these performers apply to their craft more than make up for the shortcomings of the script.
“Well, Clarice – have the lambs stopped screaming?”
I don’t think I need to write too much about the plot of this classic, so I’ll keep it short. Budding FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) tracks a murderous killer with the aid of the incarcerated maniac Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
Hopkins embodies one of the most memorable characters in film history. His monotonous tone, unnerving observations, and self-deifying confidence make him unquestionably the star of the show. Excluding all that, though, still leaves you with a more than adequate crime thriller. Ted Levine’s disturbing portrayal of Buffalo Bill, while oft overshadowed by Hopkins, is exemplary in its own right. Foster’s Starling also goes beyond a mere Socratic foil for Lecter, exhibiting development akin to a perverse coming of age story. It’s a great movie. There isn’t much else to say.
There’s a joke to be made about Keanu Reeves’s attempt a southern accent being the scariest part of this movie, there really is. Honestly, though, it’s not that bad. The majority of the cast does a decent job of bringing to life a concept we’ve all considered at one point or another: that somewhere in Manhattan, Satan is building an army of blood sucking lawyers while drinking champagne in his penthouse office full of overpriced sculptures and endless pools.
It’s Al Pacino’s performance as rabid corporatist and devil-incarnate John Milton that carries the film. He’s got a threatening subtlety highlighted by a shit eating grin that would make even the most nihilistic investment banker nervous. His interest in small time lawyer Kevin Lomax (Reeves) and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) begins with a seemingly innocuous invitation to work a case in New York, and eventually boils into a sinister corruption that goes beyond the boundary of mortal ethics.
While it’s perhaps more intriguing that scary, there are a few moments of sheer terror. Most of them involves the systemic physiological torture of Mary Ann. While Kevin is all too ignorant of the demonic waters into which he wades, she experiences their twisted nature first hand.
Despite a nearly two and a half hour run time, the movie maintained my full attention. You really do sympathize for Mary Ann, and ultimately hope that Kevin makes the right decision.