The Fright Film Festival: A Baker's Dozen
The history of the horror film is also the history of movies, as examples of the genre date at least as far back as Georges Méliès' 1896 2-minute short The Haunted Castle and many of today's best moviemakers have at least dabbled in the form. Ignoring such ephemeral titles as I Know What You Did Last Summer, the recent Urban Legend and lazily-scripted movies of that ilk, there's a huge body of work to draw from to construct your own home horror film festival for that special someone or a roomful of adventurous, like-minded friends.
From silent cinema to slick modern shockers, psychological horror to semi-splatter (most of the latter is junk anyway), here are some current favorites -- presented in alphabetical order for ease of use and to blunt charges of favoritism and the inevitable squabbles over exclusions.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Of the many versions of this classic tale available for your holiday viewing pleasure, perhaps the most overlooked -- and certainly the most tragically dismissed, at least by critics (the movie was a box office hit anyway) -- is Francis Ford Coppola's sumptuous telling of the tale, which looks positively astonishing on DVD (OK, and laserdisc, too) but is no slouch on tape, either. Adhering much more faithfully to Stoker's book than other versions (F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi's immortal turn in the 1931 Universal touchstone Dracula and Christopher Lee -- working with Peter Cushing as the intrepid Dr. Van Helsing -- in the 1958 Hammer classic Horror of Dracula), Coppola employs many silent film tricks and a subtle but effective battery of contemporary special effects to spin his yarn. The huge cast is uniformly absorbing, with standouts Anthony Hopkins (only a few films removed from the Oscar glare surrounding The Silence of the Lambs) a hammy Van Helsing and Tom Waits as a grungy, funny Renfield.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The relatively brief, thematically singular career of director James Whale is in the spotlight courtesy of Sir Ian McKellen's Oscar-worthy turn as the filmmaker in Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (coming soon to a discerning screen, hopefully near you), and of the handful of genre films helmed by the gay director (including the original Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and Whale's own apparent favorite, The Invisible Man), The Bride of Frankenstein is the most revered -- both for the pleasingly grotesque Jack Pierce make-up sported by Elsa Lanchester's frizzy-haired, pop-eyed bride and the weird, off-kilter humor Whale brought to the long-dodged project to keep boredom and bay and his English cronies in front of the camera amused. Boris Karloff's fire-scarred creation has escaped the inferno that ended the original (and which Universal had cut from re-release prints, to the puzzlement of those new to the story) and been taken in by a blind hermit (memorably spoofed by Mel Brooks in the soon-to-be DVD'd Young Frankenstein). With the not-so-gentle persuasion of the quite mad Dr. Praetorious (Ernest Thesiger), the beleaguered doctor (Colin Clive) endeavors to create a mate for the lonely monster. As Praetorious and the monster smoke cigars together in a spooky crypt after the latter mistakes a dead girl for his new "friend," the true genius of this memorable work becomes apparent.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
If you haven't seen a silent film in awhile (or, shame on you, ever), you'll be delighted by the mischievously knowing nature and contemporary feel of the half spooky, half goofy proceedings in this progenitor of every "Old, Dark [fill in the blank]" that's come along since. In the murky mansion of a rich old geezer, his will is read at the stroke of midnight, 20 years to the day after his death; which of the half-dozen larcenous relatives will survive 'til the dawn? Director Paul Leni had made a name for himself as an avant-garde painter, stage set designer and art director in the expressionistic film movement of the teens (directing two pivotal films of the period, Backstairs and Waxworks -- both in print on tape) before being tapped by Carl Laemmle at Universal to adapt the hoary stage play, becoming in the process the progenitor of the studio's famous horror cycle of the 1930s (see Bride of Frankenstein, above). After three subsequent eye-catching and atmospheric features, Leni died suddenly of blood poisoning -- depriving the film world of what would surely have been a brilliant career. The Cat and the Canary is followed on the tape by the very funny 21-minute Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Few who've seen this disorientingly cold yet profoundly disturbing thriller in which a grief-stricken married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) wrestle over the occult's ability to put them in touch with their dead child while on a working holiday in Venice will ever forget the aggregate impact of its brooding story (from Daphne du Maurier), the astonishingly complex visuals, intricate editing scheme and chilling score (by Pino Donaggio, who went on to a two-decade-and-counting collaborative relationship with Brian De Palma -- speaking of whom, and which, where's De Palma's nasty Sisters, made the same year but unavailable in any home format to date?). Although the climactic horror element of the tale has been roundly criticized as extraneous and jarring to the mood, it remains a true shocker -- don't you dare fast-forward -- and is nicely balanced by the legendary sequence in which the couple's lovemaking is intertwined with their subsequent dressing for dinner. A pity this isn't available letterboxed, as the vastly underrated Roeg (his genre titles include The Man Who Fell to Earth and Witches) is a master of dynamic composition and provocative editing (he came up through the ranks, photographing Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death and François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, among others). Still, this is a must-see.
The Haunting (1963)
Tweedy parapsychologist Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) has the at-first bright idea of gathering a small group of average people who've experienced psychic phenomena in a hulking, literally off-kilter New England mansion that's seen its share of madness and death -- it even has a subzero "heart" just outside the nursery where the last surviving family member died while her nurse was necking outside. Yet the visitors, including Julie Harris, Russ (West Side Story, "Twin Peaks") Tamblyn, Claire Bloom (hypnotic as Theo, one of the screen's first compassionate lesbians) and surprise guest Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell, Miss Moneypenny in the best Bond movies) prove to be lightning rods for things that go bump in the night. Filmed in England by Robert Wise -- who began as an editor (Citizen Kane) and segued into a successful career directing all kinds of films (the great The Body Snatcher and so-so Audrey Rose are two of his genre entries), The Haunting benefits from a solid script by Nelson Gidding and an extraordinary sound mix guaranteed to give lone viewers maximum willies. And yes, this is the original movie version of the Shirley Jackson novel ("The Haunting of Hill House") that's about to be remade by DreamWorks SKG and director Jan (Twister) DeBont -- so see it now, before the new version pummels you with the inevitable, thunderous sound mix and CGI that'll probably be more literal than special. Available to theaters for years in only a sub-par pan-and-scan version (seemingly the only version available on tape), The Haunting may currently be had in a laserdisc edition that preserves the noteworthy widescreen photography.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)
Director Don Siegel's original is a clever twist on America's McCarthy era while Philip Kaufman's version (featuring Siegel and his star Kevin McCarthy in pungent cameos) has something to say about the nascent days of New Age doubletalk (with the action shifted to -- where else? -- San Francisco); either one provides chills galore and a back-to-back double feature is strongly recommended. In each, a mild-mannered average joe discovers an out-of-this-world plot to replace humans with pod-grown replicants (thanks, Philip K. Dick). Sutherland is particularly good in the later version, which also features an early, distinctive performance by Jeff Goldblum as a spa-owning skeptic. Both movies benefit from widescreen transfers on their recent DVD releases, with the 1956 version featuring an interview with McCarthy (and a print struck from the original negative), while the 1978 version sports a feature-length audio commentary from Philip Kaufman, trivia, and production notes (the film's editing was an opportunity to put the soundboard in Francis Ford Coppola's then-new Zoetrope production facility through its paces as the director continued to shoot Apocalypse Now). Along with the two versions of The Thing, these movies are rare examples of remakes that respect but expand upon the originals.
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
While Carpenter's groundbreaking, much-imitated Halloween would've been a natural choice here (and is in fact essential viewing, particularly since the recent, splendid widescreen reissue on tape and DVD), this remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby film (produced -- and many say, actually directed -- by Howard Hawks) has gained tremendously in stature since its generally dismissed release and thus gets the nod here. As a shape-shifting entity terrorizes a remote Antarctic research station, reluctant hero MacReady (Kurt Russell) leads the charge to destroy the entity before the camp is completely wiped out. Carpenter's first film for a major studio is a more faithful reading of John W. Campbell Jr's short story "Who Goes There?", and Dean Cundey's extraordinary photography creates a palpable chill in the room. Along with Universal's recent Psycho DVD, this release on the format features an exhilarating abundance of extras, including the obligatory commentary track by Carpenter and Russell, an 82-minute documentary on the grueling location shoot and mind-bending special effects (by Rob Bottin), production notes and a great deal more. This edition was put together at Sharpline Arts, the folks behind the benchmark laserdisc special editions The Abyss, Alien and Aliens. Whatever format you choose, John Carpenter's The Thing is a genuine surprise, an unexpectedly satisfying example of a movie that was ahead of its time but now looks muscular and is truly frightening.
Worth re-viewing for the recent letterboxed VHS re-release alone (which restores the movie to as close to its original aspect ratio as the medium allows), Alfred Hitchcock's workmanlike, low-budget classic revolutionized the horror film and changed forever the way an entire generation of moviegoers cleaned themselves. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) breaks out of her routine and impulsively steals $40,000 from her Phoenix office, her flight is interrupted by motel-keeper Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his "mother." When Marion's disappearance is investigated by her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), the grisly truth is discovered. Another movie recently remade by Hollywood (Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant's reportedly shot-for-shot remake with Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn is due in December), Psycho is also available on a Universal DVD that defines the new format: the 94-minute "making of" documentary features Leigh, Clive Barker, screenwriter Joseph ("The Outer Limits") Stefano, assistant director Hilton A. Green, Pat Hitchcock (the director's daughter, who played Leigh's office-mate) and others, along with the original 6-minute trailer in which Hitchcock leads a guided tour of the Bates Motel, production drawings and photographs, photographs of poster and lobby card art from around the world, newsreel footage instructing theater owners on the finer points of selling the picture, and even the famous shower scene -- with and without Bernard Herrmann's magnificent, shrieking score.
One of the better gore-fests and a movie that appeared as a breath of fresh air when that particular strain of horror movie was at its nadir (only Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series can match it for macabre wit), Re-Animator is as funny as it is bloody, courtesy of some off-the-wall direction by Stuart Gordon, who worked extensively with Chicago's Organic Theater, eye-catching production design from Texas Chainsaw Massacre art director Robert A Burns, a Psycho-inspired score by Richard Band and a witty, knowing script -- based very loosely on some H.P. Lovecraft writings -- that knows when to whack and when to wink. The incomparable Jeffrey Combs is Dr. Herbert West, a young, obsessed medical student who develops a neon-green goo that, when injected directly into the brain, brings dead bodies back to life. Inevitably, this leads to trouble, as West cruises the morgue for fresh victims and must fight off an instructor bent on stealing his work. Again, the recent Elite Entertainment DVD takes the prize here, with a widescreen transfer from the original negative supplemented by 20 minutes of additional footage, audio commentaries from Gordon and selected cast members and a dream sequence left out of the original release altogether. Among its many pleasures, Re-Animator also has one of the all-time great tag lines: "Dr. Herbert West has a very good head on his shoulders, and another one in a dish on his desk."
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Five young people in van meet a bizarre family of butchers in rural Texas in this very influential low-budget horror classic, directed by Tobe Hooper while still a film student and based on the same contemporary cannibal that inspired Psycho (one Ed Gein). Much has been made about the difference between the suspense of Hitchcock and the terror of this film (and the multitude of subsequent variations and rip-offs), but one key element unites them: as in Psycho, where the "blood" in the shower sequence was chocolate syrup and viewers never actually see the knife piercing skin, there's actually very little gore in Massacre and more suggested violence than actual explicit mayhem. The rights situation regarding this movie was extremely complicated, which means that there are a lot of different editions of the film circulating in tapes of various quality. The recently issued DVD version features a high-definition transfer and stereo surround sound remix supervised by Hooper, audio commentary by the director, DP Daniel Hooper and Gunnar Hansen (who played the demented, club-wielding Leatherface), and a half hour of deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers, TV spots, still photos and even a blooper reel (much of which is on the older laserdisc as well). Whatever version you find, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an unfathomably influential movie that will explain a great deal about trends in the contemporary horror film.
Les Vampires (1915)
Another recently restored silent movie of note, Louis Feuillade's ten-part, nearly seven-hour Les Vampires -- in which the surrealist-inspired gang of the title, lead by Irma Vep (Musidora), terrorize the Parisian establishment as they are pursued by intrepid reporter Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathé) -- isn't strictly a horror film, even though it sports severed heads, poisoning, at least one zombie, hypnotism, a nightclub called "The Happy Shack," and a tangible eroticism explored further in Olivier Assayas' 1997 festival hit Irma Vep (starring Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung). Les Vampires was restored by David Shepard (who also supervised The Cat and the Canary), and features clever tinting, authentic, idiomatic intertitles, proper running speed and a score by Robert Israel that incorporates silent film compositions to enhance the authenticity of the action. The hypnotic, exciting Les Vampires was made the same year D.W. Griffith shot The Birth of a Nation, and is a stunning reminder that we've only scratched the surface of the profound riches of the silent cinema.
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