For the horror buff, Fall is the best time of the year. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling and a feeling of death hangs on the air. Here at Sound on Sight we have some of the biggest horror fans you can find. We are continually showcasing the best of genre cinema, so we’ve decided to put our horror knowledge and passion to the test in a horror watching contest. Each week in October, Ricky D, James Merolla and Justine Smith will post a list of the horror films they have watched. By the end of the month, the person who has seen the most films wins. Prize TBD.
Spirits Of The Dead (Histoires extraordinaires)
Directed by Federico Fellini (segment Toby Dammit), Louis Malle (segment William Wilson), Roger Vadim (segment Metzengerstein)
First thing to notice is the three directors: Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim. Secondly, take notice of the cast, which includes Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp, Salvo Randone, James Robertson Justice, Françoise Prévost and Marlène Alexandre. Spirits Of The Dead is an adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe, one of which demands to be seen.
The first segment of the film, Roger Vadim’s Metzgengerstein, is unfortunately the worst, but is still great in its own right, and features a marvelous performance by Jane Fonda. Louis Malle’s segment is the second of the three. Malle turns Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story into an engrossing study in cruelty and sadism. Malle’s episode is an engaging enough entry, but pales in comparison to what follows.
They really do save the best for last. Episode three is the reason to see this anthology. Even if it hardly qualifies as horror, it is still deserves to make my list. Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit, which stars Terence Stamp, is a visual wonder. Fellini and his cinematographer shoot with an intensifying palette – the most brilliant mix of blues and reds, bittersweet shades and extraordinary camera movement you will ever see in any horror anthology. Stamp is truly terrifying as the dysfunctional Toby, and the world that Fellini creates perfectly mirrors the inner turmoil and self-destructive nature of his character. Toby Dammit feels like a stylish nightmare – a truly unsettling and intriguing film that makes the perfect gateway into the director’s oeuvre.
Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (The Hatchet Murders)
Directed by Dario Argento
Many will argue Suspiria to be Argento’s full-fledged masterpiece, but for my money it is Deep Red – gorgeous, gory and gruesome, and undoubtedly his finest picture. The alluring David Hemmings steals much of the show as a music teacher who investigates a series of murders performed by a mysterious figure wielding a hatchet. Argento’s trademarks are all visible here in copious amounts, as it prefigures some of the elaborate stylistic choices that he would carry on for the remainder of his career. Add in the superb, jazzy score by Argento’s band Goblin, and you have one of the most distinct-sounding and looking horror films of the decade. From a technical perspective, the film is a masterwork, but Deep Red also excels where most Giallos fall short: it carries an engaging narrative heightened by an unpredictable course of events and a truly surprising twist ending.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Although not as shocking as Psycho, The Birds is a more complex, ambitious and sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark in the prolific career of the master of suspense. Hitchcock’s inspiration for the film was an actual news report about a bird attack that occurred for unknown reasons, specifically a bird that was known to be prey and not a predator. The Birds is a precursor to nature vs. man horror films as Psycho was to slashers.It is also the second masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock contributed to the genre of small-town thrillers – the first being Shadow of a Doubt. Perhaps the aspect that stands out the most in The Birds is the long pauses between the dialogue. When one thinks of a Hitchcock film, one remembers the long well drawn conversations between the cast of characters. In The Birds, there are countless scenes in which the actors express more through physicality than in words. Hitch apparently wanted The Birds to be a silent film or at least was flirting with the idea of making a silent film, but decided it wouldn’t be marketable nor profitable. Hitchcock was also experimenting with the idea to not include a score in his film and instead opted for sounds created on the mixtrautonium, an early electronic musical instrument, by Oskar Sala. Along with Remi Gassmann, they composed a piece that consists primarily of screeching bird sounds, which provides a nerve wrecking, surrealistic backdrop to the sordid proceedings. Although the special effects are dated, they were still rather impressive for the time. Ray Berwick was responsible for training hundreds of birds, gulls, crows, etc. to act like they were attacking without actually hurting anyone (although apparently they did). By employing thousands of real trained birds intermixed with fakes, Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a mass attack on the quiet community – the result is remarkable, featuring 370 effects shots, with the final shot composed of 32 separately filmed elements.
Possession (The Night the Screaming Stops)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
France / Germany, 1981
Think of Possession as an intense drama of marital collapse amidst occult happenings, intricate political conspiracies, and the Berlin Wall as backdrop. The director has stated that he wrote the screenplay in the midst of a messy divorce, and it is quite apparent. At Cannes, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or (taken that year by another Polish film, Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron) and won a Best Actress awards for Isabelle Adjani. The feature earned a place on the list of 39 ‘Video Nasties’ banned in the UK under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Seems like most of the movies on my list were either banned or highly controversial at one point or another. The film draws similarities to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and anticipates Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
Possession features special effects from Carlo Rambaldi who worked prior on Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Flesh for Frankenstein. Here, he designed the ominous “creature,” an eroticised tentacular monster that looks like it was lifted from one of Cronenberg’s wet dreams. Most impressive of all is the cinematography, by Bruno Nuytten, who uses ambitious hand held takes, extensive dollies and infinite tracking shots. The shape shifting monsters reflect a film that is an amalgam of family tragedy, political thriller, and body horror.
Directed by John Carpenter
A historical milestone that single-handedly shaped the future of the entire genre. This seminal horror flick actually gets better with age; it holds up with determination as an effective thriller that will always stand head and shoulders above the hundreds of imitators to come. Halloween had one hell of an influence on the entire film industry. You have to admire how Carpenter avoids explicit onscreen violence, and achieves a considerable power almost entirely through visual means, using its widescreen frame, expert hand-held camerawork, and terrifying foreground and background imagery.
Essential Horror Viewing
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981) If you haven’t seen this film yet, than you aren’t much of a horror fan. It is both schlocky and genuinely terrifying.
Bedlam (Robson, 1946) Another clever and stylish Val Lewton classic. What makes this film disturbing is the idea that one’s freewill and idea of sanity can be stolen away from them.
Dracula Has Risen from The Grave (Francis, 1968) Freddie Francis may have made some of the best looking horror films of all time, and this one may be the prettiest of them all. Francis drops in subtle hues of pink, red, yellow, and blue to accentuate the mood of this atmospheric classic.
Dawn of The Dead (Romero, 1978) The satire is thick in this gorey bit of social commentary, which plays on our fears and fantasies of being trapped in paradise.
The Fifth Cord (Bazzoni, 1971) This film is probably the most rugged display of machismo of any giallo I’ve seen. Franco Nero, is John Wayne, Dirty Harry, and Alain Delon all rolled into one sandy haired, mustachioed, whiskey breathing dragon of a man, and what’s best is he plays the role fully aware of this. What makes this film unique though, is working in juxtaposition to Nero’s bulging performance, is a soft feminine elegance of Luigi Bazzoni’s cinematic touch. Even among giallos this film has a notable deft touch.
The Stuff (Cohen, 1985) The Stuff isn’t nearly as clever and witty as it thinks it is, and by the third act it feels as if they were making it up as they went along. But, it does have a fun exploitation film feel to it, and a Cold War sensibility that makes it interesting. At times it is nostalgic for the 50’s Sci-fi generation, and at times it is a vague ode to Hitchcock, but it never achieves the poignant commentary that it tries so desperately to do.
Images (Altman, 1972) A haunting, and mildly disturbing look into madness. Altman’s gray and gritty motif makes this film an eerie dreaminess. But, much of this film feels a bit too on the nose. There are ventures into different aspects of the main character’s (Susannah York) madness, but nothing that truly ponders the dark emotional corners of her madness. We are given someone who has gone crazy, scenarios that lead up to her madness, but the connection of those events to her madness don’t create sparks.
Seven Dead in The Cat’s Eye (Margheriti, 1973) One of the sillier giallos I’ve ever seen. It presents a few supernatural elements that never go anywhere, it is incredibly hammy, even for a giallo, Serge Gainsbourg is dubbed in the worst Scottish accent you’ll ever hear, Jane Birkin always looks cold, and there is a guy in a gorilla suit that we are to believe is an orangutan. With all that being considered it makes for a fun and light film. Margheriti is loose and light with the sex, and it has a classic horror movie nostalgia with its gothic setting.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (Monument, 2009) One of the better horror documentaries I’ve seen, but the great films of the 40’s particularly those of Val Lewton are glazed over a bit in favor of focus on awful films of the 50’s and 80’s.
Paranormal Activity 3 (Joost, Schulman, 2011) I am still having a hard time gauging how I feel about this film. It more or less is the same film as the first two, and again, it does some things well, and some things poorly. What it does well is creating tension with the static wide shots, keeping the viewer at attention, waiting to see something. Will we see a subtle movement? Will there be something abrupt and over the top? What it does poorly is relying so heavily on the cheap jump scare. And like I’ve said before it is one of the inherent downfalls to the found footage subgenre
To The Devil a Daughter (Sykes, 1976) Made during the height of the satanic cult trend, To The Devil a Daughter seems to lump all of the tropes together in one film. It has some overtly shocking imagery, confused ideas on exactly what a Satanic cult is (the supposed demon the cult worships apparently has nothing to do with Satan, but they keep calling it Satan. Oh, and it is a woman, and they keep referring to it as a man.) So, we end up with a shallow pool of silliness, but, and it’s a big BUT, Christopher Lee is so much fun to watch as the cold unforgiving cult leader, and we get to see a young Nastassja Kinski play an innocent (or not so innocent) nun. It’s worth a look.
Bloodlust Zombies (Lantz, 2011) By rule I don’t watch movies starring porn stars that aren’t porn. But, I was in the mood for something light and short, and this film was certainly both. Unfortunately it sucks. To say that it feels like it was written and directed by an ignorant 13 year old boy would be an understatement.
The Human Centipede (Six, 2009) I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film where the protagonists are dumber than this film. It might not be so bad if the film had somewhere to go with its premise, but, it is hindered by its adherence to an idea that it wants to shock the viewer rather than say something of any real interest. It’s a shallow, and intellectually pointless film.
The Rite (Hafstrom, 2011) Perhaps the most flawed of all horror subgenres is that of demonic possession. It is flawed in that it is not inclusive to nearly half the audience. If you are not a superstitious Christian, and the film doesn’t build anything beyond the broad and shallow fight between good and evil, and the crisis of faith, there is very little for the audience to relate too. Sure there is the visceral terror that comes with the idea that something can take over one’s body, but again, if the film is wallowing in the faith aspect that idea gets lost in the preachiness. The Rite, is almost like Christian propaganda, and it induces more eye-rolls than scares.
Grave Secrets (Borchers, 1989) This movie sucks. It is an absolute chore to get through. It is hokey, stupid, and a waste of time.
Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini)
Fellini’s short, Toby Dammit, is rightfully hailed as not only the greatest film in this series but among his best work. It is inventive, disturbing and viscerally exciting. The film lampoons the media industry with delicious venom, while similarly reveling in the absurd imagery it creates. Dammit’s final act reminds me of something directly out of sports footage or that awesome video the F1 car driving through early morning paris in the 60s. The labyrinthian nature of the streets, as well as the thunderous sound of the motor create an edge-of-your-seat sense of impending doom. The other shorts are still good, at least compelling to watch. Vadim’s short is quite outlandish, borderline garish. He clearly has a perverse sense of humour, casting Peter Fonda in the role of the object of obsession of the deliciously French Jane Fonda. The film appeals to my sensibilities towards camp and extremes. I wouldn’t call it great, but it’s certainly serviceable. Malle’s is probably the weakest of the three, packing in far too much in a short running time. The pacing is extremely uneven, and it ultimately feels unfocused. Still worthwhile for the beautiful people
Don’t Deliver us from Evil (Joel Seria, 1971)
Quite possible my favourite film I’ve seen for this horror race, Don’t Deliver us From Evil basically speaks to all of my favourite cinematic conventions and motifs. The story of a close friendship between two teenage girls who go to the same Catholic boarding school and live just a couple of miles apart, in their obsessive devotion for each other they renounce Jesus Christ and perform a ceremony to become brides of Satan. The film is quite lighthearted and playful, but surrealistic imagery and psychological detachment make for an unbalanced film reality. The film seems to speak for why we both adore and fear teenage girls, from their awful self-centeredness, coy games and physical perfection. Their most cruel and exciting games involve teasing local men. The men are often quite a bit older, often dumb and dull (at least one is obviously a little slow). They tease and tease and tease, pushing the situation as far as they can, until the men can no longer resist. The girls are well aware of sex and sexuality, especially how powerful their own appeal is, but the moment a man touches them they can’t seem to stand it, fighting them off with all their power, screaming, punching, pulling. It’s an interesting contrast. The film is rather beautifully made as well, very much a late 60s and early 70s aesthetic but with a nice amount of grace. Jeanne Goupil, who plays one of the girls, is amaaaazzzing. Totally recommended.
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
Possibly Bava’s best looking film: The lighting, the compositions, the women all make for a singular stylistic vision. I don’t know if it amounts to much suspense or anxiety but it doesn’t REALLY matter in the end. I also like that it’s set in a fashion house type thing.
Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925)
The filmmaking itself is a little weak but Chaney makes the film more than worthwhile worthwhile. I still like certain sequences like the opening of all the glowing ballerinas searching for the phantom. Still, the film rests on the weight of dread and sadness embodied by the mysterious phantom.
West of Zanzibar (Tod Browning, 1928)
This is a great film, except for the fact that it’s REALLY REALLY racist. The film is set in Africa where the tribespeople are described as “cannibals” and are generally meant to be the source of horror and ridicule. Otherwise, the film is extremely atmospheric and beautifully cast. Lon Chaney is famous as the “man of a thousand faces”, but that titles undermines the totality of his physical transformations. In West of Zanzibar, he plays a circus magician who suffers a horrible accident which leaves him paralysed from the waist down, throughout most of the running length he is known simply as “dead legs”. Dragging his mostly useless body around, his mangled body comes to mirror his increasingly twisted soul. In his quest to avenge the man who crippled him, he sets upon himself to destroy the life of the man’s daughter. He brings her to Africa (the most depraved of depraved continents, or didn’t you know?), has her raised in a house of ill-repute where as soon as she is able she is forced into prostitution. In a guise to save her from this life, he sends someone who claims to have found her father. Things only get worse from her as she moves deeper into the depths of the jungle and hell. I have already seen an adaptation of the play Kongo (title name of the 1932 film) and this one is far more seedy. The other film is a bit more developed but lacks the punch and pathos that Chaney & company bring to the screen.
Brain Dead (Adam Simon, 1989)
A wonderful movie to watch with friends, this is an all out crazy fest. First and foremost it has Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, it has a bunch of brains in jars, and dreams within dreams within dreams, etc. etc. The production designer is also none other than Catherine Hardwick, yes director of Twilight and Red Riding Hood. Paxton totally outshines Pullman in every conceivable way but it’s totally expected. It’s actually eerie at times though the narrative’s convulusion is a bit too much, and really lessens the film’s power. Still, BILL FUCKING PAXTON.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)
A fairly good adaptation of the story, John Barrymore is a great lead. The story is rather pithy unfortunately, the Mamoulian one stands apart as the adaptation to raise above the moralistic underpinnings. The film stands on the minute differences in appearance between Jekyll and Hyde, they exist certainly ( a few grotesque notes like Hyde’s misshapen head covered with greasy and sparse hair) but the general features of the face are not too different until quite late in the film. The Nosferatu claws being the most monstrous sign of his inhumanity. It is very much a performance piece and the film doesn’t stand too much above that. I will single out the inclusion of Nita Naldi as the Italian dancer, solely because of her uniquely modern beauty. She doesn’t have that doe look that so many other actresses of the era did, perhaps because she is more distinctly “ethnic”, refreshing in the white-washed world of classic Hollywood. There is also an interesting sequence with a spider like alien creeping about Jekyll’s bedroom, I am not sure if it is “good” but it’s certainly … interesting. Barrymore is also kinda really handsome.
Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
I don’t think the film lives up to it’s promise but remains a smart and invigorating. It is loaded with political energy though perhaps remains a bit too ambiguous to make any strong message. The film’s locale, score and “villain” makes for an unusual entry in the genre. Madsen’s “noble” quest brings her on a road to ruin and her upper middle class visionary ideas are all but destroyed by experience investigating the urban legend of the Candyman. Tony Todd is incredible and is a large force in the creation of the multi-dimension atmosphere of attraction and repulsion.
Son of Dracula (Robert Siodmak)
Basically too silly and slight to recommend. It could maybe scare a child, but generally lacks in basic storytelling elements to make it worthwhile for anyone else. It seems a bit ridiculous at this point to outline so specifically the “rules” for vampires, especially as this film doesn’t really depart in any way from the classic formula. The casting of Dracula is awful, some mid-west style actor with no sex or fright appeal. Not for an instant is he believable as a European. The film also relies too heavily on special effects, which are not only primitive (for the most part) but ineffectually employed. The film does have some moody cinematography though, I can’t say it’s an entire waste of space. Very dreamy, noir-like and well, dark?
The Grudge 2 (Takashi Shimizu, 2006)
whoa, one of the worst films i’ve seen in a while. it just made no sense, not an ounce of scary and was so badly acted. Worse than Ju-on and i hate Ju-On.
Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)
I had little interest in seeing this film until I actually heard what the twist was, that revelation was enough to pique my interest and let me see the film. With that knowledge in mind a lot of the goings on in the film are actually quite eerie, the reveal suggesting an ultimately nightmarish scenario. With any kind of fantasy oriented film, and horror is without a doubt very much ingrained in fantasy, the absurdity of the premise is not nearly as important as the execution. The opening scenes of this film are actually quite effective, beginning with an incredibly disturbing dream sequence. The middle and latter half fall apart because they fixate too much on physical realities and not enough on psychological. One only has to look at films like Sleepaway Camp or the Sixth Sense to see a twist done right. This film meanders far too much, and loses sight of what makes the opening successful. It quickly becomes redundant and instead of building on dramatic irony, in a way Hitchcock might using an audience’s knowledge of events as a means of creating suspense this might have been effective but the film builds on insignificant moments and criminality rather than shock or dread. The absurdity of the central “romantic” relationship might ultimately be the cause of error, the absurdity of the union and the treatment of each other is too dysfunctional to be believed. This is an error in both writing and performance, the film does not leave enough ambiguity in the character interactions as a whole fail to ring true. This creates too much disbelief and Esther’s presence does not serve as a strong enough catalyst, or perhaps is too strong… basically, the whole balance is completely off-kilter and the film fails. There are also just so many scenes that don’t work. Isabelle Fuhrman is great though.