Friday, October 24, 2003

Top Thirteen Horror Films, Novels and Short Stories, part I

I like lists. So considering that we've entered into the Halloween season, I thought that it would be amusing and interesting to ask some of my comrades if they would like to write a little about their favorite horror films, novels and stories. Luckily they agreed to my nefarious plan, so after this initial trial run, Nightmare Town hopes to see them roaming these lonely streets more often.

The first list is by Lisa Moore – playwright, short story writer, and hardcore Joss Whedon fan. She also exhibits a strange fondness for actor Stephen McHattie. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

FAVORITE HORROR FILMS IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:(all available on DVD and VHS unless otherwise noted)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988): dir. Wes Craven
A beautiful, hallucinatory film about Haitian voodoo in the last days of the Duvaliers. An exceptional cast rises above the considerable cheese factor. Watch it late at night and sleep-deprived for full effect of the zombification scene, which Craven leads you through by the hand as if it were happening to you.

Arnold (1973): dir. George Fenady
Stella Stevens marries a corpse for his money, but something is gleefully murdering people, and it seems to be the dead man himself. Want to see Roddy McDowell get his innards squeezed out by an evil sweater? Stella Stevens squashed in the shower with her illicit lover? You do! Absolutely you do. I haven't seen it since I was nine since it's never been released on VHS or DVD, but I can't believe it doesn't hold up. The incomparable Elsa Lanchester is here as well, and I seem to recall a smashing lose-your-face-to-acid-in-the-cold-cream scene.

Don’t Look Now (1973): dir. Nicholas Roeg
Slow-building creepfest set mostly in Venice. Roeg sets you up slowly with its strange atmosphere and pays off in spades at the end. Scared the piss out of me when I was a kid, and I still get jumpy around bright red raincoats.

Dead Ringers (1988): dir. David Cronenberg
Cronenberg in his best slow and creepy mode. You don't have to be a woman to keep your legs crossed hard during this tale of twin gynecologists sinking into decay and depravity. This is the film Jeremy Irons ought to've won his Oscar for. Somewhere during the first forty minutes I completely forgot he was playing both roles.

Ravenous (1999): dir. Antonia Bird
This is one of the most exhilarating movies you'll ever see, particularly about cannibalism. There's not a weak performance in it, not a weak element: music, script, editing, pacing, story, all right on. Once you've seen it, try and forget Robert Carlyle's manic fit in the snow outside the cave or Jeremy Davies' anguished cry, "He was licking me!" Or the marvelous endgame, in which two men caught in a bear-trap are playing Whoever-Dies-First-Gets-Eaten.

The Company of Wolves (1985): dir. Neil Jordan
If there's a chick-flick among horror films, this is it. A reworking of Angela Carter's werewolf stories, it follows fever-dreams from the troubled sleep of a girl as she enters into puberty. Everything in the film is symbolic, as in a dream. Sound awful? Weirdly, it's not, largely due to the world Jordan creates with meticulous care: a world of nightmarish fecundity in which nature is constantly encroaching and man constantly battling it back. It's filled with strange, good images (Terence Stamp as the Prince of Darkness, brooding on a memento mori) and performances (Angela Lansbury as Red Riding Hood's disturbingly creepy grandmother).

Prophecy (1995): dir. Gregory Widen
Who wouldn't love to live in a Miltonian universe in which angels vie with men for the love of God, in which the heavens are perpetually rent by war between seraphim, where Christopher Walken is the ruthless archangel Gabriel and Viggo Mortensen, best of all, is Lucifer himself? For two hours and two sequels, you can! Revel in the Manichaean angst, and don't be afraid of the sequels: the first one, especially, is well worth the effort (look close for a cameo by Glenn Danzig).

The Dead Zone (1983): dir. David Cronenberg
Gripping and unpretentious rendering of the Stephen King classic. Christopher Walken gives a brilliantly low-key performance as a man who emerges from a coma with unnatural powers, and you'll never watch The West Wing easily again once you've seen Martin Sheen's powermad senator Greg Stillson.

Theater of Blood (1973): dir. Douglas Hickox
Vincent Price, Diana Rigg and a cast of distinguished British theatre actors tear it up in this mad romp through the dark side of bardolatry. A disgruntled actor murders his critics in gloriously gruesome ways inspired by Shakespeare himself. Poorly paced and smirkingly camp, but wait until you see the Titus Andronicus murder.

Pumpkinhead (1989): dir. Stan Winston
It's a Manly Wade Wellmanesque world where monsters erupt from the rich loam of back-hills folklore. Lance Henriksen is extraordinarily moving as a country-store owner who conjures up a demon of vengeance when his boy is killed by careless city-folk. Henriksen explores a depth of emotion that you may never see rivalled in the genre, and the night scenes are lit with eerie effectiveness.

Angel Heart (1987): dir. Alan Parker
Some of us remember a time when Mickey Rourke was heralded as the DeNiro of his generation, and this is his best work. It's after WWII and Rourke's unkempt, charming PI who has "a thing about chickens" follows a missing persons case steeped in voodoo from New York to New Orleans. Under Parker's unfailingly deft hand the sense of dread grows to unbearable levels. Music, flashback and strange images weave a hypnotic spell, and if it weren't for two badly miscalculated elements (the glowing eyes and the obviousness of Louis Cyphre), this would be a perfect movie.

The Legend of Hell House (1973): dir. John Hough
Richard Matheson wrote the script from his own source material; think of it as The Haunting of Hill House on steroids. Three psychic investigators and one spouse spend a week at Hell House to divine the secrets of its evil. The remarkable thing about this one is that through daring use of camera angles and a near-brilliant manipulation of sound effects Hough brings the house to life, makes it a constant, lurking and genuinely frightening character through whose eyes we see much of the action. Some overwrought acting and absurd plot points, but well worth it.

The Fool-Killer (1965): dir. Servando Gonzalez
Beautifully filmed in B&W, this is another good one to watch while feverish or sleep-deprived for the full, dream-like effect. Reminiscent of The Night of the Hunter (1955), it follows a boy (Edward Albert) on his travels though post-Civil War America. He's on the run and he hardly knows from what, but it's embodied in his mind by the mythical demon of the title who may or may not be his mysterious travelling companion. The tent-revival scene is a surreal moment of genius, not to be missed. Available on VHS only.

The Exorcist III (1990): dir. William Peter Blatty
A word of warning: I have never found anyone who agrees with me on this one. I don't get why. Jason Miller and Brad Dourif are outstanding (Dourif later basically reprised the role for an X-Files episode), and Viveca Lindfors will never look the same again after she's crawled across the ceiling. Sure, there's cheese (what's with the hedge-trimmer?) but there's a scene in the middle that's unsurpassed for suspense involving a nurse and security guard on night-shift, a glass of melting ice, a nametag, a coffee vending-machine and long, stationary takes of the lobby. Blatty is a sucker for that extreme Catholic imagery (statues of the BVM weeping blood, lots of roses and crucifixes and saints with their eyes rolled heavenward), but who isn't?

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