Category: Cult Horror


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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)

What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.

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While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.

In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.

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And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.

Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.

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And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.

The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.

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And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.

Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)

Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot.  The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.

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Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.

After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.

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And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.

While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.

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Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.

I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”

Final Score: B

All directors have to start somewhere. Some debuts are a little more impressive than others. When Terence Malick sprung the visual poetry and tragic love story of Badlands on the world, he was instantly marked as a man to watch (even if his output is minimal at best). I’m not sure anyone would have expected that the man behind Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) could have gone on to make something as magnificent and devastating as Schindler‘s List. Sam Raimi falls more into the Spielberg camp than Malick (not that he ever reached the heights of either). As director of the Spiderman franchise (especially Spiderman 2), Raimi proved that popcorn entertainment could have mass appeal while still touching your heart and mind. It’s a shame then that his debut picture, The Evil Dead, is more of a chance for Raimi to show off his technical prowess (which is apparent beneath the film’s many flaws) than a watchable movie in its own right.

The zombie horror genre (which The Evil Dead inhabits while simultaneously flirting with demon possession films) is rife with movies that are so bad they’re good. Because of how The Evil Dead II embraced an almost slapstick level of humor with its over-the-top gore and campy presentation, it’s enjoyable because it pokes fun at the innately awful nature of the B-movie (in much the same way as the Grindhouse films). If you took Planet Terror seriously, it would be unwatchable garbage, but because it satirizes the genre (while also being a perfectly serviceable B-movie), it works. The original The Evil Dead is more of a case of “It’s so bad, it’s meh.” The acting is a mess (and not always intentionally), the story is a convoluted bit of nonsense, and it fails to be scary whatsoever. However, an always endearing Bruce Campbell and early signs that Sam Raimi was a gifted director keep the film from being a total failure.

Five friends, led by the goofy and charming Ash (Burn Notice‘s Bruce Campbell), decide to go for a weekend away in a remote cabin in the woods .Things move around on there own even as they first arrive and one of the girls is momentarily possessed and forced to draw an eerie book in her bedroom. Yet, they still think it’s a good idea to stay here. After a mysterious force blows open a hatch leading into the basement, the group finds a book (and an audio recording) that appears to be sewn with human flesh. The audio recording reveals a scientist’s research into the occult and how a demon possessed his girlfriend after he read a specific phrase from the evil book (which is then read over the recording) which starts a frenzy of murderous supernatural rage when demons slowly but surely possess Ash’s friends and girlfriend as he has to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and to stay sane.

On virtually every front but Raimi’s camera work, the film is a disaster. There have been some retroactive claims that this was meant to be a horror comedy, but I call bull shit because this is clearly meant to be a somewhat serious horror affair, and nothing about the film is scary. It is certainly as gory as you can imagine (especially impressive considering the film’s miniscule budget), but the supernatural aspects of the film are laughable at best (even the most traumatic moment, a tree raping one of the female characters, is too campy and cheesy to make an impact). The acting is genuinely awful, and although Bruce Campbell shows at least some level of professionalism, it’s painfully obvious that the rest of the cast are just doing Sam Raimi a favor. It doesn’t help that the characters are given zero development (not even Ash), and the story is laughably thin.

Despite the film’s myriad flaws, Sam Raimi manages to pack the film (especially the early moments before he lets absurd levels of gore do the speaking) with tons of great shots. Whether it’s wide-angle lens close-ups, low shots, fast moving dolly shots, and great tracking shots, it’s obvious that Sam Raimi was an artist who was getting to play with a big box of toys he never had access to before. The use of smoke, shadows, and even lighting were well implemented despite the film’s shoestring budget. Raimi succeeds in creating a moody, eerie atmosphere, but when the zombies/possessed friends finally make their big appearance, he abandons any pretense of seriousness and goes for as much gore as humanly possible. His great camerawork draws even more attention to the film’s flaws because it reminds you what kind of film Raimi could be making.

I honestly have very fond memories of The Evil Dead II, but no matter how many times I watch this original, I can’t get over just how bad it is (and how actively grating certain sequences with a laughing zombie are). My sister watched part of the film with me and eventually had to find something else to occupy her time with because she thought the film was so bad. And it is bad. It’s almost irredeemably awful. Yet, those of you who can appreciate the technical aspects of film making will immediately mark Sam Raimi as a gifted auteur, and even if The Evil Dead doesn’t live up to the standard that the rest of his career set for him, it’s worth it to see young talent developing.

Final Score: C

For horror film enthusiasts (which I do not especially consider myself to be one), there are generally two opinions about what was the creative hey-day of the genre. It’s either the 1920s and 30s at the height of the Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney era, or it’s the horror resurgence of the 1970s and early 1980s (also known as the rise of Wes Craven, George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper). I don’t really think I have much of an opinion there because horror isn’t exactly my forte. Still, among my horror-loving friends (of which there are many) opinion is pretty evenly split. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (with a script written by Steven Spielberg) is on the films that always comes up as a classic of the early 1980s horror genre. While I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I did when I was younger (it simply wasn’t as scary as I remembered it being, unlike say The Exorcist), I did pick up on some not-so-subtle social commentary that I missed the first time around. There’s certainly no denying that back in the 80s Spielberg was one of the all-time masters of capturing what it was like to be a child, and the way that Poltergeist fed on very literal childhood fears remains pretty impressive. Also, though some effects are obviously quite dated, the film managed to remain visually impressive despite being 30 years old (this year).

In an archetypical American suburb, the Freeling family are the poster-child for the well-adjusted and loving WASP family. Husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful real estate agent for the realtors that built the entire development where the Freeling family (and dozens and dozens of others) lives. Wife Diane (The Big Chill‘s JoBeth Williams) is a loving stay-at-home-mom (who smokes the occasional joint in the evenings) that looks after the family’s three children ranging from 5 to 8 to 16. When the youngest daughter, Carol-Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), starts hearing voices talking to her out of the static of the television, the Freeling house is quickly taken over by the supernatural. Though the incidents start off as seemingly innocent (chairs and people moving on their own across the kitchen floor), it isn’t long before the malicious side of the spirits break through and Carol-Anne is sucked through a portal into a limbo-dimension and the son is nearly devoured by a tree into the same dimension (or possibly another). Diane and Steve have to enlist the help of parapsychology experts who quickly learn that they too are in way over their head.

This film is not subtle whatsoever in making a statement about American consumerism and the hypocritical lives of the average WASP-ish suburbanite. It’s especially obvious during the scenes before the haunting gets out of hand. We see these people living in an almost disgusting level of comfort, and their biggest problem is that the remote controls of the Freeling neighbors are at the same frequency as the Freeling house and they get in a remote control war. They can waste food. There is a recurring visual motif about things that have been buried getting dug up (which is taken to its logical and horrifying conclusion in the film’s climactic final scene). All of these things are fine. While Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed the film, it was written by Spielberg, and all of his films operate on two levels. You have the story and then there’s the obvious allegory (i.e. E.T. is really about divorce and not actually aliens). And I’m always down for some good finger-poking at the suburbs. And when the film delivers the scares, they are often (though not always) pretty successful. Still, good lord, the exposition in this movie could have came out of one of the later Star Wars films. They would just talk and talk and talk and try to explain things in explicit detail that would have been better served by leaving more to our imagination. Poltergeist suffered from the one thing Spielberg usually gets right. It tried to tell more than it showed.

This is going to be my shortest movie review in ages (they’re usually more like 5 or 6 paragraphs instead of 4), but I still feel like I’m dying from my sinus infection, and my head is still buzzed on enough allergy medicine for me to float away on a wave of suphedrine. And I just think about Breaking Bad every time I take it (cause Suphedrine is a major ingredient in methamphetamine, although not in Walter’s cause he found like a work around in making it which is why his meth is blue. I think. I’m not a chemist). Slowly but surely, all of the energy I’ve been expending doing posts over these last couple days despite being sick has turned my mind into total mush. It’s not good. Anyways, if you’ve somehow managed to not see Poltergeist in the last thirty years, it’s still a really good movie. I’m not sure if I would call it a great film, but it’s fun, and it manages to deliver some legitimate scares. And for all movie buffs, it’s cultural legacy is pretty substantial so that alone would justify a viewing.

Final Score: B+

What does it say about a genre that the film that I consider the height of the market isn’t even a movie that I can give an “A+” to. I like horror (well, I like good horror. 99% of it is just fucking terrible), but I think that as a cinematic avenue, it might be an inherently inferior form. Because I truly believe that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made (and it’s one of the only horror movies that I actually find to be frightening), but when I think about the other films on this blog that I’ve awarded top marks to, I just can’t put The Exorcist in the same league as movies like 8 1/2 or Tree of Life. I can name exactly one other horror film (particularly if we characterize The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller) off the top of my head that I’d be willing to give an “A” too (Let the Right One In), and there are handful of other horror films that I’d be willing to give “A-“‘s to. And that’s really it. Maybe it’s the way that the vast majority of horror films put scares ahead of engaging character development and therefore sacrifice an ability to emotionally invest the audience in the fates of the film’s heroes and heroines. Great cinema is about great characters and great stories (and occasionally, if your name is Fellini or Lynch or Bergman, about great visual odes to your own medium), and with the exception of Let the Right One In, I can’t really name any horror films that allowed me to become fully invested in fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Still, The Exorcist earns itself an immense deal of good will by being without question the most frightening film of all time and one of the few movies that can instill genuine disturbance into the mind of this vocal atheist and skeptic.

While the film begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) stumbles across some ancient artifacts which may or may not be of demonic/Satanist origin, the actual film is centered in the otherwise quiet Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress in D.C. to film a movie raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), by herself. Their life is normal and happy (besides Chris’ absent husband) until one day when Chris and Regan begin to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Regan also seems to be convinced that she has communed with a spirit through a Ouija board that she found in the home’s basement. Their terror only escalates when Regan begins acting strangely, starting out by peeing her pants in a nearly catatonic state in front of a party that Chris was throwing and then resulting in full on tremors and spasms where Regan’s entire bed is shaking more than any 12 year old girl could possibly cause. After a series of extensive medical and psychiatric tests, none of the doctors or psychiatrists can come up with a reasonable explanation for Regan’s behavior and in a last minute desperation, Chris enlists the help of a local father (in the midst of a crisis of faith), Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on her daughter who is increasingly under the obvious control of something beyond the normal. Along with Father Merrin, Father Karras attempts to save this young girl but it might cost him his own life in the process.

The Academy Award for Best Makeup didn’t exist yet in 1973 (it wouldn’t be invented until 1980 specifically for the film The Elephant  Man) but if it did, it would surely have gone to The Exorcist. This movie is nearly 40 years old, but moments where I felt the film’s effects had aged poorly were few and far between. This was back before CGI defined every single sci-fi/fantasy/horror film and make-up artists had to rely on good old human ingenuity to create compelling images that were beyond normal human experience. And The Exorcist succeeded with aplomb. Once Regan starts to really succumb to her possession and her body is covered in lesions and sores and pustules and what not, she is incredibly difficult to look at and it’s all thanks to the marvelous make-up work of the film’s effects crew. Possessed Regan is one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror and the film really nailed that disturbing and grotesque feel that I’m sure the movie’s script asked for (as well as the source book material). I’m just praying (figure of speech since I haven’t actually prayed in years) that I don’t dream about her disturbing visage this evening. Her face or the rare glimpses we get of Captain Howdy. That’s pretty much the last thing I need.

The film’s sound design is also a marvel (considering it won the Oscar for Best Sound, that’s not shocking). There’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening in this film, visually and aurally, and the fact that there’s almost always something happening at the edge of your perception adds a lot to the overall creepiness of the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design is one of the most important aspects of any horror film. It can be used to up the inherent paranoia and tension of the genre to nearly unbearable heights. All of the best horror films rely more on the audience’s imagination and a philosophy that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. The Exorcist succeeds in the technical department because its’ unnerving score paired with the endless stream of ambient effects and the more brutal and perverse noises played when Regan/the demon are in full evil mode. It’s disorienting to an almost whiplash inducing degree. To make it even better, the film will often slip in a couple frames of some demonic image just long enough for your eyes to register what you saw but not long enough for you to make sense of the image. From virtually every behind-the-scenes perspective, The Exorcist was a resounding technical triumph.

That was all without talking about the film’s spine-tingling script once. The movie takes its time getting to the possession (because it wants you to become emotionally invested in Chris, Regan, and Father Karras [though I would argue it fails to really develop anyone besides Father Karras in an interesting way]), but once Regan really starts to lose it, the movie is a non-stop ride into the heart of darkness. By the film’s end, you’ll never be able to look at a crucifix the same way again, and outside of a Stephen King novel, I can’t really think of a single bit of horror that was so willing to corrupt the innocence of a child. However, the film’s script is where it falters and that’s not even counting the way that I felt the movie tried to be more character driven than it had the acumen to be. For a healthy portion of the film, an argument could have been made (and was made by most of the doctors) that Regan wasn’t possessed. She was just suffering from some particularly violent strain of schizophrenia. I just wish the film had waited a while longer to make it so obviously clear that she was in fact possessed by a demon. I think the movie played that trump card too early, and honestly, it would have been just as disturbing seeing this 12 year old girl shoving her mother’s face into her bloody privates whether she was possessed or crazy. Ambiguity and the power of one’s imagination is the sign of a great horror writer, and this movie just played it’s cards a little too obviously. It’s not something that ever really bothered me when I watched this movie when I was younger, but seeing it as an adult now, it just seemed a little too heavy-handed.

I’ve written a lot today (3000 words for Game of Thrones alone) so I’ll draw this to a close. Had you asked me what score I was going to give this movie before I actually watched the movie (based on my memories of the film), I would have said “A+” but it didn’t work out that way. I guess my tastes have matured a little bit since I was younger. I haven’t watched this movie in high school so I feel like I came into this film with the perfect mix of nostalgia and freshness to make a good, objective review. Still, I do honestly believe it’s the best straight up horror film of all time. I actually think in retrospect that Let the Right One In is a slightly better movie, but I almost don’t like characterizing it as a horror film. If you’ve somehow missed seeing The Exorcist at any point in your life (my sister watched it for the first time today and was decidedly not impressed), it’s one of those films that any self-respecting movie fan has to see. I think it’s survived the intervening years since it’s release like a champ even if I’m not quite able to call it a perfect movie.

Final Score: A

Discounting Tim Burton’s Batman which rang in the end of the decade, the 1980s were not a kind period for movie adaptations of comic books. Whether it’s the painful to watch bastardization of Frank Castle with Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher or Howard the Duck (which is a regular contender for Worst Film of All Time) or any of the god-awful Superman films from the 80s but especially Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the comic book movies from those days are pretty much all universally horrendous. For a long time I knew that in 1982 Wes Craven had adapted DC fantasy horror comic Swamp Thing into a movie. Alan Moore’s run on the series (after the film had been made) is fairly legendary in the comics world as a writer revitalizing an all but forgotten character into one of the hottest properties of the era, and since I loved both Alan Moore and Wes Craven, I believe that I purposefully added this film to my master blog list (because after watching it, I’m positive it wasn’t nominated for any types of industry awards). Voluntarily subjecting myself to this film was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in ages because without question, this is the worst Wes Craven film I’ve ever watched.

After being sent to supervise a government research project helmed by charming plant geneticist Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), Alice Cable (Carnivale‘s Adrienne Barbeau) is quickly forced on the run when mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) destroys Holland’s lab and apparently kills Holland to steal his work. Though Cable is able to escape, she is pursued by Arcane’s thugs because she possesses Dr. Holland’s final notebook detailing the last steps of his process to essentially solve humanity’s hunger problems with crops that can grow anywhere. As Arcane’s men chase Cable through the treacherous Louisiana swamps, an unlikely savior comes to her side. Mutated into a half-plant/half-man hybrid by the chemicals that everyone thought had killed him, Dr. Holland is now alive and Cable’s protector as a monster with the heart of a human.

This review is going to be really short because this movie is really bad and I’d rather spend my time watching one last episode of Doctor Who before I go to bed than devote 1000 words to this film (though it managed to pull legitimately poetic moments out of its ass from time to time but that’s Wes Craven for you). The plot is completely nonsensical and it fails to capture the fantasy-horror/psychological elements that makes the comics so memorable and is instead a series of action sequences tied together by a borderline incomprehensible plot. The acting is truly terrible as well and everyone seems to be taking pleasure in making things as campy as humanly possible. The special effects are egregiously bad. Understanding that this is 1982 and not everyone has a George Lucas budget to work with, but I had to control my laughter every time I saw Swamp Thing on screen. The editing is also atrocious and whether it’s the silly transitions the film would use for screen swipes or just the general lack of anything tying the events together, the film was a mess. Even the lighting was horrific and there were many moments in the film where it was just too dark to see what was happening and not because that was the director’s intention. I can’t even recommend this film to people who love “so bad they’re good films” because this one is simply so bad it’s terrible.

Final Score: C-

 Here’s a weird bit of contradiction that makes me the strange little Don Saas that I am. My tastes whether it’s books or movies or music generally run in the artsy direction, and I would prefer to watch a Darren Aranofsky film to a Michael Bay or James Cameron pic any day. I like Animal Collective and Radiohead, and I love James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. So, part of me is terribly ashamed that one of my favorite authors of all time is Stephen King. There’s just something about his books and his twisted imagination that I find really interesting. Film adaptations of his books, on the other hand, are a terribly hit and miss affair that range from the awesome (The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, The Mist) to god-awful terrible (Thinner, Needful Things). I just finished re-watching 1983’s Christine and it is easily the worst movie I’ve reviewed for this blog so far.

The basic story of Christine is more exciting than the film itself. Nerdy Arnie Cunningham buys a beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine and restores it to its beautiful pristine glory. It’s a great looking car. However, the car is evil or possessed or something (you never really find out). As Arnie becomes closer with his car, his personality slowly starts to transform to something much darker and ominous, and soon Christine goes on a killing spree killing everyone that gets between her and Arnie. It’s up to Arnie’s best friend and his girlfriend to try and save him and stop Christine.

This movie is just awful. It’s not scary. It’s not interesting. The acting is terrible. It lacks any bit of subtlety or imagination. It was only an hour and a half long but I kept checking to see how much time was left and for it to be over. Stephen King’s novels are always as much about his characters and the theme of the book as they are about horror, and this film failed to capture King’s signature voice. I can’t recommend this to anyone and I regret the hour and a half of my life that I lost watching this.

 Final Score: D

For the last ten years or so, the zombie apocalypse scenario has been in vogue, so to speak. Starting with Zak Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead to Zombieland to one of the most criticallly acclaimed shows that is currently on television being a zombie drama, The Walking Dead, making quality zombie pictures is a pretty decent way to turn a profit. Hell, you can even write humor books about zombies and make money like The Zombie Survival Guide which I have purchased for zombie-loving friends in the past. I mentioned his name a second ago, but this genre would not exist today and would not be so over-whelmingly popular if it weren’t for George A. Romero. He is to zombie films what Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper are to slasher flicks. He’s the godfather of the genre. And his original zombie film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, is in all probability the first great zombie film ever made that rose above it’s B-movie origins.

The movie is about a group of survivors who are caught in the middle of the zombie uprising. They are holed up in a little farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. From this group of people, you have pretty much every archetypal figure in zombie movie lore. The shell-shocked survivor. The infected survivor. The bad-ass black guy. The couple in love. The asshole control freak who does more harm than good. This film created the stock characters of the genre but did those characters better than its copy cats ever would. Duane Jones plays Ben who becomes the de facto leader of the group and much like this film’s desires to not simply be a B-horror film, Duane’s performance is quite good, especially by horror movie standards. I applaud the film’s decision in 1968 to cast a black performer as the lead of the film in a film that is in no way about race, but it simply chose to make a black character the strong leader/bad ass figure.

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how well it was made for how obviously small its budget was. The only real special effects in the film are for the zombie make-up and even that isn’t anything particular special beyond making the people paler. The film is primarily shot all in and around one house. There aren’t many action sequences. In reality, the film is very much a drama that just happens to be a zombie horror film. The character’s biggest enemies often aren’t the zombies but the other survivors themselves. And when things inevitably become even more catastrophic, it was their inability to work together and cooperate that kept them from success. Romero’s films generally have some sort of social message in them such as Dawn of the Dead‘s strict anti-commercialism spiel. I’m not entirely sure what the social message of this film was. However, it is easily one of the first horror films that tried to be equally a character study, and in that area it succeeds quite well.

The movie has one of the darker and more ironic endings of any of the horror films I’ve seen. It’s really quite good. Alright, here’s the low-down. Even if you don’t like horror movies. Even if you especially don’t like zombie movies, I think you simply need to watch this one and give it a chance. There’s a reason why, even 40 years later, Romero is still one of the kings of the genre. Along with the original Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead stands to me as one of the greatest zombie films ever made.

Final Score: A-