Sunday, April 8, 2007

Scary Movies of Note

I am not a big fan of scary movies. I especially don't like the ones with numerals, Arabic or Roman, at the end of their titles, or even (generally speaking) the first films in their series. They all end up being the same movie - cheap, exploitative, commercialized trash.

However, several horror movies have made a deep impression on me over the years. Though I wouldn't necessarily want to see them again, I have to admit they were hugely effective. In some cases, I recommend not seeing them if you can help it, because I think I might have been happier and healthier had I not seen them, but I must bear witness to their power to inflict chills, suspense, shock, and at times, real horror in the proper sense of the word.

The first one that comes to mind is Jacob's Ladder, a 1990 film directed by Adrian Lyne and headlined by Tim Robbins. A profoundly weird and disturbing movie with a drab, 1970s look that turns out to be a big clue, it is one of those movies that messes with your sense of reality and finally, at the end, forces you to rethink all that you have seen up to that point. Robbins delivers an early standout performance as a Vietnam veteran who starts seeing ominous conspiracies and supernatural visitations.

A more recent film whose distinctive look enhances its oppressive atmosphere, and which is also apt to make you doubt the sanity of its main character, was Dark Water (2005) with Jennifer Connelly, directed by Walter Salles and based on a Japanse film titled Honogurai mizu no soko kara ("From the Depths of Dark Water"). Connelly's character and her daughter move into a creepy apartment building where a sinister spiritual presence lurks. Is she losing it? Is her estranged husband trying to make her seem to be losing it so he can take custody of her child? Or is something even weirder going on? The story keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Moving away from psychological horror, I consider David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000) both the most excitingly original and the most viscerally powerful sci-fi movie of the past decade. With a strong cast led by the magnetic yet repulsive Vin Diesel, tough but sexy Radha Mitchell, and "blue-eyed devil" Cole Hauser, it has the creepiest crawlies, the most surprising characters, and an intense visual texture running the gamut from painfully bright daytime to a night so dark and deadly that you'll want to sleep with a light on for days afterward. This first of the not-so-fortunate Riddick trilogy starts with a spaceship crashing on a planet that has three suns...just before all three suns set for the first time in eleven years...and the savage creatures that live under the sun-scorched ground are about to come out in the dark to feed. Diesel plays the ultimate bad-guy-who-becomes-a-reluctant-hero.

Before Peter Jackson directed King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was a bright young turk in the super-gory category of horror films. I have only seen one of his scary flicks, but it immediately became (and through repeated viewings, has stayed) one of my favorite movies. I am speaking of The Frighteners (1996), starring Michael J. Fox, Dee Wallace (E.T.'s mom), John Astin (Sean's dad), Jake Busey (Gary's son), and R. Lee Ermey (Sarge). And although every one of these characters is precious to me, the one that steals the show every time is the FBI agent played by Jeffrey Combs: think "Mulder from The X-Files gone off his Lithium." It is a creepy, action-packed, occasionally grisly flick that nevertheless sparkles with wit, romance, and whimsical touches, including a cameo appearance by the director. The story is about a paranormal con-man whose exorcism scam gets him in trouble when a real ghost starts killing his clients.

Two movies that I wish I had never seen, and advise you against seeing, nevertheless deserve to be mentioned because, Gosh darn it, they were amazingly effective. First, Jeepers Creepers (2001, directed by Victor Salva) stars Gina Phillips and Justin Long as a sexy sister-and-brother pair of college kids who are stalked by a flesh-eating demon on their way home for Spring Break. Everything that I have said so far is a perfect description of the type of movie I generally don't care for. But the real reason I wish I hadn't seen this movie, and the reason it is a true work of genius, is the absolutely pure horror that drives right up to, and through, the last frame of the picture. I do not just mean "horror" in the sense of fear or disgust; I mean it in a spiritual sense, as something that leaves you profoundly shaken. I don't mind spoiling the fact that the movie is as far from having a happy ending as can be; in fact, it brings a likeable character's life to a shockingly brutal end full of darkness, despair, terror, and pain. And then the jerks went and made a sequel to it.

The other great movie I wouldn't see again is Frailty, a 2001 film directed by sometime actor Bill Paxton. Paxton also stars in the movie as a widowed father of two boys, who believes he has received a vision from an angel instructing him to track down, kill, ritualistically dismember and bury a number of people who are supposedly demons in human form. With the fervor of a prophet, the father tries to recruit his sons to assist him in this mission. The younger boy (Jeremy Sumpter) believes in Dad, but the elder (Matt O'Leary) tries to stop him and is charged with being in league with the devil. Though I don't recall the movie being very graphic visually, what the father's mission did to his sons tied my guts in knots. Plus, there was a mind-warping subplot featuring one of the boys as a grownup (played by Matthew McConaughey) and an FBI agent (Powers Boothe). The movie is truly painful to watch and disturbing to think about afterward; I wish I had missed it, but I have to admit that it accomplished what it set out to do.

Not a "horror movie" as such, but a nail-biter that is sure to trigger a short-term case of claustrophobia, is the 2002 film Panic Room directed by David Fincher, and starring Jodie Foster (who had a similar hard time, only on an airplane, in 2005's Flight Plan). This movie is about a mother and daughter who have just moved into a house that has a kind of walk-in safe where people can take refuge in case of a home invasion. Naturally, as soon as they occupy the house, their home is invaded by a trio of deadly-serious robbers played by Jared Leto, Forest Whitaker, and country singer Dwight Yoakam in an unbelievably terrifying performance. Yoakam's character alone is enough to scare your sox off; Foster's histrionics bump the fright levels into the stratosphere.

Another 2001 film on the fast track to becoming a Scary Movie Classic is Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's The Others, an atmospheric ghost story set on the Isle of Jersey (in the English Channel). Two children, afflicted with a disease that makes them deathly sensitive to sunlight, live shut up in a mansion with a creepy servant (Fionnula Flanagan), an increasingly desperate mother (Nicole Kidman), loads of fog, and quite possibly one or more ghosts. Dad (Christopher Eccleston) has gone off to war and hasn't been in touch for way too long. As the apparent haunting becomes more and more aggressive, and the children proportionally terrified, a truth emerges that (as in many of the most celebrated spooky movies, such as The Sixth Sense) forces you to reinterpret everything up to that point. But the movie's most solid asset is Nicole Kidman, who is at one time beautiful, vulnerable, and the scariest thing in it.

I have mentioned before that I'm a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Though many dub him the "Master of Suspense," he specialized in mysteries and espionage capers, often with a theme of "an innocent man on the run." There were, to be sure, moments of supreme tension in many of these movies. But in only two films I can think of, Hitch really crossed the line into the "horror" genre. One was The Birds (1963). Headlined by little-known actors Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren (in her first starring role), supported by Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, and a cafe full of remarkable character actors, and accompanied by an experimental "musical score" consisting entirely of electronically-manipulated sound samples of birds, the film achieved things with matte paintings, editing, lighting, split screens, and "in the camera" tricks that no one could reproduce today without spending gadzillions on digital effects. Many and many are the scenes in this movie that give you either the cold creeping crawlies or the hot running horrors. What is remarkable, I think, is how the movie never attempts to explain why the birds attack.

Hitchcock's other unambiguous foray into pure horror was Psycho (1960). You have probably seen it or read something more intelligent about it than I am prepared to say, except that Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake (1998), virtually identical except for the cast and the decision to film in color, wasn't half as effective as Hitch's original. I only really bring it up because its crucial scene did for the shower what Robert Zemeckis did for the bathtub in What Lies Beneath (2000), starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. This creepy, paranormal mystery, about a seemingly happy couple whose marriage is torn apart by an apparent haunting, pushes the envelope of visual storytelling in a way that really shows Hitchcock's craft lives on.

Once again, I'm not recommending all of these scary movies. I have seen several of them over and over, and still admire them and enjoy them. But even the ones I wouldn't see a second time (and wish I hadn't seen the first time) can be appreciated as examples of what a few - but only a few - horror filmmakers get right.

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