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Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Horror’ Category

(Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

(essay by Troy)

Psycho, simply put, is the most influential horror movie of all-time.  Here we have the film that took horror from being generally a genre with supernatural and gothic traditions, making it popular to place the emphasis on the modern, the domestic, and the psychosexual.  Or, as Jamie has stated before it represents the “year zero” of the genre, creating a divide of those films that influenced Psycho and the films that were influenced by Psycho.  50 years later it’s narratives, themes, and aesthetics have been referenced and drawn upon in 100′s of films, yet no one has been able to quite perfect the combination of style, tension, timing, narrative misdirection, and morbid wit that Hitchcock did.

Filled with its fair share of remarkable moments, Psycho is forever connected to one indelible and iconic series of images, “the shower scene.”   It’s memorable for several reasons.  There’s the level of technical ingenuity that’s on display — it famously has not a single penetration of the knife, yet our mind connects those dots in the midst of the scene’s myriad of cuts and camera angles. Of course, there’s also an underlying sleight of hand at work here, Hitchcock slyly playing the audience “like an organ,” wherein he shifts our voyeuristic and objectifying gaze into one of complicity when Marion is attacked and her body is disposed of.

Those are part of what make this a staple of Film Study 101 classes, but what makes it stand the test of time is the abject fear it still manages to create, even after multiple viewings and the likelihood that everyone watching knows what’s lurking around the corner 40-minutes into the proceedings.  I’ve seen it numerous times and it never fails to shock and chill me in its suddenness and violence, a combination of disorienting music and editing, murderous shadows, naked helplessness, and hemmed-in claustrophobia, finalized with Marion’s desperate grasp and a haunting focus on her lifeless stare looking back at us.

It’s the quintessential horror movie sequence and a permanent fixture in our cinematic cultural heritage.

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(Wes Craven, 1984)

(essay by Robert)

1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film that explodes beyond its slasher framework by transgressing the boundaries of reality and imaginary.  The film makes no apologies for its preponderance of blood and abruptly challenges us to look hard at the psychological and sociological burdens of the characters.  Craven created a film that is so violent that the true concepts can be lost.  The real genius of the film is in the undertones of his commentary combined with the gripping dream imagery.

The dream motif and the concept of capturing the feeling and obscurity of dreams/nightmares was by no means original.  It was Craven’s seamless connection between the dreamworld and real life that hit home: he does this both literally and figuratively.  The dream/reality transitions in the film are subtle and are a wonderful horror mechanism.  More symbolically, Craven built a relatively complex story-line going back decades to insert a very tangible and somehow believable link between the dreams being experienced and real “awake” events (most importantly death).  Nightmares are a universal yet personal experience. Somehow, regardless of how silly they seem in the day-light, they are startling and trigger real fear.  There is security in knowing that all we have to do is wake-up and the door is closed on the dream.  The idea that this door does not lock and that somehow someone, other than ourselves, can penetrate and control both our dreams and reality is an amazingly chilling notion that touches at the most vulnerable place. This element undoubtedly is what makes the film so intriguing and relatable. (more…)

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(John Carpenter, 1978)

(essay by Kevin)

Much like my dilemma with what to write about in regards to Alien here I am again faced with an even more canonized film; a film that has been written about ad nauseam to the point where anything I say in this essay is going to sound cliché. Halloween is considered one of the great horror films of all time, and it is considered the quintessential slasher film. It seems odd that for a countdown whose sole purpose was to bring awareness to little-seen horror films that my list would be topped by such an obvious choice. It’s true that we wanted this countdown to be unorthodox, but I don’t think for an instant that any of us – Robert, Jamie, and Troy – felt that we could omit the obvious choices from our list all in the name of esotericism. So what makes Halloween the greatest horror film of all time? Perhaps you have preconceived notions of what the slasher film can offer, but for me it epitomizes everything – good and bad (and boy was some of it atrociously bad) – about the horror genre post-1970’s.  Every cliché and every trope found in modern horror can be traced back to John Carpenter’s Halloween. Yes, Carpenter cribbed most of his film from sources ranging from the obvious (the most cribbed man when it comes to terror: Hitchcock) to the unheralded (Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas), but never once does his film feel like a mere copycat, an aping of better material. No, Halloween, even today some 30 years later, still feels fresh and still gives me the chills. (more…)

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(David Lynch, 1986)

(essay by Kevin)

[This is a repost of an entry I did on the subgenre of Neo-Noir a while back…I am leaving it untouched here for one purpose: I have not added any addendums to this essay about whether or not Blue Velvet is a ‘horror’ film; so, let’s discuss whether it is or isn’t in the comments.]

If Chinatown uses the style of noir to create an atmosphere of loneliness and despair – revealing the corrupt truths of America the way Gittes reveals the corruption of the Cross case; and if Blade Runner uses noir’s style to look into the future to raise the level of awareness about a kind of hyperreality we live in; then David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is an attack on the ideological nostalgic 1950’s America filtered through Lynch’s twisted, microscopic lens. Lynch’s film peers into the secrecy of our lives in order to see what lies underneath the façade of Everytown, USA. Blue Velvet involves families, strokes, teenagers in love, severed ears, murder, drugs, and yes, sadomasochism. And yet Lynch does in deed bring all of these elements together in noir fashion to create an ethereal experience, something so surreal and so bizarre, it is as if the viewer is taking hits from Frank Booth’s gas tank.

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PART I: OVERTURE

In his public life, my Grandfather, Carmine (father to my father) was a jack of all trades.  He was proficient in carpentry (a skill taught to him in his early teens by his future father-in-law), plumbing, and running a small farm in the yard of the house he grew up in (mainly chickens, ducks, a few hogs and a milking cow).  He married my Grandmother at a very early age (she was thirteen to his nineteen) and they immigrated to America , from Italy , in 1901… Al Smith was the very popular Governor of New York from the years 1918 to 1928.  On that final year he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Presidency and was bested by Herbert Hoover.  In lieu of his loss and knowing of his want to go back to some kind of work, the heads of a new company, Empire State Inc., saw fit, as a publicity stunt, to make the most popular man in New York the President of their company and to overlook the building of what would become THE definitive landmark of Manhattan Island.

Carmine had worked for Governor Smith for several years, keeping the repairs and up-keep of Tammany Hall (where Governor Smith kept his offices in Manhattan) and the reliance’s that Smith had placed upon my Grandfather during his employment were growing greater and greater with each passing day (sometimes he even chauffeured, as he did the day the Governor, his wife and two grandkids were to meet motored over to the Budweiser wagons the day after prohibition was declared over and the public celebration of its repeal could commence on 34th street). Smith trusted my Grandfather and Carmine trusted Smith. According to my Grandmother’s stories of her husband; they knew they were going to “take a ride on easy street” the day the former Governor, a man my Grandfather deemed his friend, named Carmine his head superintendent of the Empire State Building.  Almost immediately, money started to flow bigger on the way to my Grandfather’s pocket.  Savings were made and, by 1954, my Grandparents had not only weathered the wrath of the Great Depression and the onslaught and conclusion of WWII without much muss to the head, but put away enough to never truly worry about bills and the want for anything.  They weren’t necessarily rich, but well-off to say the very least and, in that year, they bought the family house, a Brownstone.  My Grandfather retired from his work with The Empire State company in the spring of 1968 (Smith had died of heartbreak and heart failure years earlier in 1944 at age 70), a little more than a year after my birth. (more…)

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(Bob Clark, 1974)

(essay by Kevin)

Ever since I was a kid I can remember the coverbox to Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. It wasn’t just the simplicity of the title and its juxtaposition of those two words or the fact that it was directed by the man who gave us A Christmas Story and Porky’s, but it was the image on the front: a woman screaming with a plastic bag over her head, and the image of this woman was inside of a wreath. I remember that I needed to see this movie. However it wasn’t until I was much older that I finally got a chance to visit Black Christmas, and I was shocked to not just find a really terrifying and intense stalker film, but to also find one of the earliest examples of what would later be known as the “slasher film”.

With hindsight we can clearly say that the plot – a bunch of girls in a sorority house are being harassed by obscene phone calls that are…COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! – is as banal as any slasher film’s plot. However, Clark’s film predates Halloween by four years, and Friday the 13th – the film responsible for making the slasher profitable – by six years; however, none of that seems relevant if we’re discussing who came up with the template first because despite the Canadian’s having a four year edge on the American’s they were all behind the Italian’s, where Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood predates Black Christmas by three years. (more…)

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(Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

(essay by Kevin)

“The Hour of the Wolf” is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful.

Imagine if I told you that the tagline above is for a movie called The Cannibals – sounds like an ordinary horror film, doesn’t it? Now, imagine I tell you that the above tagline is for a movie directed by Ingmar Bergman – you would probably think it was an art-house film about the dark night of the soul. Okay, so now I will tell you that Ingmar Bergman – after having a nervous breakdown – decided to make two of his darkest and most personal films in the form of Persona (a wildly popular and revered film art-house film) and Hour of the Wolf (originally entitled The Cannibals).  As odd as it may seem to see an Ingmar Bergman on a list for the best horror films I’ve always felt that it was around this time of the 60’s and 70’s that Bergman was not only making the best movies of his career, but he was also doing it in the form of deeply introspective and contemplative films that came from the darkest depths of the man’s artistry and philosophies. (more…)

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(Ridley Scott, 1979)

(essay by Kevin)

There were a handful of films in this countdown that I dreaded getting assigned, and Ridley Scott’s Alien was one of them. Oh, not because it’s a bad movie (of course it isn’t!), but because what can someone like me say about the classic horror/sci-fi hybrid that hasn’t already been said by people much more adept than I?

I guess one place to start is how upon each subsequent viewing of Alien I’ve found something new to admire. I’ve seen the film at least 20 times, and I never tire of it (I even had the privilege of seeing it in the theater during its revival tour a few years back); mostly because it epitomizes classic filmmaking, and that’s something that never gets old. Like all of the great Hitchcock thrillers, Alien knows how to play the audience like a piano (to borrow Hitch’s line); it utilizes a slow burn mentality that uses the plot device of an alien life form evolving throughout the film to keep things fresh every time we “see” the alien (one of the brilliant things about the film is in the way Scott leaves much of the film in the dark, never tipping his hand as to how the alien may look, employing a kind of Val Lewton approach to the horror).

The pacing of the film is one of the primary factors in getting me to return to the film year after year. The pacing allows for the camera to really sweep through the ship and give us a sense of place. Yes, this is a science-fiction film, and Scott knows that (and its sets and exterior shots of the ship are great sci-fi moments), but at its heart Alien is a horror film; a thing-that-go-bump-in-dark slasher film – Halloween in space, essentially, and it’s one of the most brilliantly executed slasher films I’ve ever seen. (more…)

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(Roman Polanski, 1965)

(essay by Robert)
Polanski used a minimalist approach to give us this shocking depiction the deteriorating mind.  In doing so he delivered one of the finest examples of psychological horror of all time.  Still today an intriguing and gripping film, Repulsion unapologetically explores the thin and fragile balance of sanity without accusing or presuming.  The first of his “apartment trilogy”, Repulsion unfolds with the director’s distinctive subtlety and humanism.

Catherine Deneuve portrays the sexually fearful Carole.  She is perfectly cast as the voluptuous but apprehensive manicurist.  All around her in swinging London are the trappings of a sexually parochial society that is threatening and revolting to her.  From the daily cat calls she endures and the lingering presence of her sister’s (married) boyfriend to the aggressive advances of her landlord and seeming shallowness of her own profession, she is cornered relentlessly. When she is pursued by Colin (John Fraser) she groups him with all of her pent up feelings and stereotypes.  He essentially has no chance. Deneuve’s casual portrayal of such an agonized character is absolutely mesmerizing.  Her violent and murderous charges overtake her calmly as her natural defense mechanism.   These spurts seem to be her truest moments.  What at first seems a quite and impenetrable shield turns out to actually be a front for completely terrifying anguish and instability.

Of course you cannot explore Repulsion without deep musing of the sexuality of Carole (and all the film’s characters).  Polanski depicts Carole’s torment aggressively by showing us her dreams/hallucinations of sexual assault and allowing (forcing) us to hear her sister’s real life sexual encounters.  He also takes full advantage of her physicality by not-so-subtly parading her in her divulging nightgown.   These powerfully build Carole’s tension and defenselessness. The film though is about much more than sexual resistance and repression. Polanski uses this very sensual theme to explore his deeper subject of the inhibiting and anguishing command of human fear.

It cannot go unmentioned that, in addition to this compelling concept and fantastic delivery by Deneuve, the young director shows an inspiring level of depth by utilizing strikingly simple (but powerful) visual and audio.  He maximizes the effectiveness of his black and white film buy shedding countless shadows and shooting close-up angles.  He also somehow manages to transform everyday noises like dripping water, train tracks, ticking clocks and house flies into horror devices.  Also, notice the awesome rapid-fire drumbeat that accompanies her slashing of her landlord.- this is an exceptional representation of her pounding mental torture.

The absence of plot though is Polanski’s most effective tool.  It is also his most telling clue that he does not intend to place guilt or provide us with rational explanation to Carole’s plight.  He casts us straight into the scenario without history and back-story. Although he refuses to let us off the hook by telling us too much, he does tease us with glimpses of a family photograph showing detached Carole as young child.  This perhaps suggests some lifelong Freudian explanation to Carole’s ultimate undoing. He does not elaborate further.  Instead he wonderfully challenges us with questions (not answers) about his characters and ourselves and leaves us to devise our own solutions. This photo often times (unfortunately) becomes the focal point for discussion of the film.  It is often commented that the photo tells us all we need to know about Carole. I maintain the director was making a much deeper point about the fragility of the human mind- one that cannot be explained away so simply.

Repulsion, most simply put, is an exploration of madness.  In his truest form, the director includes us in his study.  Polanski most certainly wants us to taste the madness; to sympathize with Carole’s torment, but he is more interested in us recognizing our own.  What makes the film so engaging and human is the undeniable sense that madness is not only a completely reasonable response but one that we all teeter-totter with.

(this film appeared on Roberts list at #4, Jamie’s at #19, and Troy’s at #22)

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(Peter Weir, 1975)

(essay by Troy)

Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock opens with a shot of the 500-foot tall volcanic Hanging Rock, fog slowly lifting from its base, appearing like an alien monolith rising out of the earth.  Taking place on Valentine’s Day circa 1900, we are soon introduced to the students of Mrs. Appleyard’s School for Girls in soft-focus golden hues, idealized visions of Victorian age femininity and beauty, shown amidst Zamfir’s ethereal pan flute and whispered poems.  One of these girls is the beautiful Miranda, full of gloomy portent and as she ominously tells her roommate Sara that she’ll “not be around long” and that “”everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”  These opening shots contrast the harsh exteriors of the Rock with the glowing innocence of the girls, providing us with the image of Miranda as the perfection of femininity (a teacher of hers likens her to a “Botticelli Angel”), almost otherworldly in the way she carries herself and seems to have an understanding of what lies ahead.

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