From independent professional producers like Roger Corman to intrepid first-timers (and sometimes only-timers) assembling a small crew and making a movie on their own terms, American independent filmmaking has a long, honorable tradition of low-budget scares. In time for Halloween and in conjunction with a month devoted to American independent horror, The Dissolve decided to determine the 30 best examples of this tradition. Some are clever, some scary, some unpredictable; most are some combination of all three. That’s what happens when a genre that values the bizarre finds filmmakers forced by limited resources to get imaginative.
Sleepaway Camp’s basic elements—unknown killer systematically picks off the staff and campers of the titular locale—were already derivative in 1983, but this lurid indie possesses a gonzo energy all its own. Much has been made of its ending—one of the most shocking in cinema history—but Sleepaway Camp is full of surprises from top to bottom. Some of the performances are so over-the-top, they suggest the title refers to the film’s goofy aesthetic rather than its setting, but the hilariously dated early-1980s fashions and heavy Noo-Yawk accents only lull viewers into a false sense of security, and make the startlingly intense violence that much more upsetting. The deaths in this film—a child molester gets boiled alive, a bully is stung to death by an entire hive of bees—are no joke.
The main characters are a pair of cousins—outgoing Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and shy Angela (Felissa Rose)—sent to summer camp by Ricky’s eccentric mother (Desiree Gould). Angela is borderline-catatonic after the death of her father and brother many years before, and the other campers tease and pick on her until, one by one, her tormenters start winding up dead. The film’s gender politics have been interpreted in myriad ways—some call it regressive, others argue it’s actually a knowing subversion of slasher-film stereotypes—but either way, there’s no denying that there’s a lot more going on in Sleepaway Camp than in standard-issue exploitation fare.
The final scene. For spoiler-related reasons, it’s best not to discuss the details, but director Robert Hiltzik’s decision to cut immediately from the dramatic reveal to the closing credits, leaving the fates of the surviving characters unclear, is a particularly bold and memorable choice. [MS]
In Michael Almereyda’s revamping (pun intended) of Dracula mythology for modern-day Manhattan, Van Helsing hunts vampires on his bike and is played by Peter Fonda in hippie-burnout mode. And that’s just one of the revisions to Almereyda’s deadpan twist on Bram Stoker, which follows the Count’s daughter Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) as she turns a new victim (Suzy Amis) and tries to reunite with her twin brother after Van Helsing stakes their father. Almereyda has a plain affection for the Dracula of old—the flashbacks to Transylvania have the hard shadows of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, and the entire film is shot in black and white—but he updates it to New York at its hippest. (Nadja talks about Brooklyn as if it were as distant as the Carpathian Mountains.) Nadja has a sensibility in line with Hal Hartley—the great college-rock soundtrack, led by My Bloody Valentine and Portishead; the archly witty dialogue; the casting of Martin Donovan in a prominent role—but Almereyda is a much more expressive visual stylist, mixing the minimalist black-and-white of nocturnal Manhattan with Pixelvision flurries in certain dramatic sequences. It isn’t a terrifying film by any means, but Nadja has a richer sense of history than most modern vampire tales, while being playfully experimental and surprising in its themes of family and relationships. This is one of the lost gems of mid-1990s indie cinema.
When Nadja senses that her father has been killed, she and Renfield (Karl Geary) head down to the morgue and demand to pick up the body. The baffled security guard standing in their way? David Lynch. [ST]
In the spirit of all those independent horror filmmakers who’ve exploited whatever resources they have on hand, in 2001 well-regarded indie-dramedy director Brad Anderson brought some relatively crude (compared to today) digital-video cameras into a crumbling, decommissioned Massachusetts mental hospital, and made his first and best scary movie. A stellar cast that includes Peter Mullan, David Caruso, and the movie’s co-screenwriter, Stephen Gevedon, ventured into an inherently frightening location, and relied on cinematographer Uta Briesewitz to approximate the naturalistic, filmic look of low-budget 1970s genre pictures, while they all told the story of an asbestos-removal crew affected by the history of madness at their worksite. Doing a lot with a little, Anderson leans heavily on audio tapes found by the cleaners, which explain the encroaching evil, but also let Anderson spook the audience with the sinister sounds of disembodied voices, allowing the viewers to conjure their own worst nightmares.
An abandoned asylum is creepy enough in the daytime, with co-workers spread around the halls. It’s even scarier at night, when a member of the cleaning crew, Hank (Josh Lucas), sneaks back in to pillage some antique coins. Hank skulks into the darkness, where he hears strange noises, as a prelude to the attack the audience knows is coming—but it’s no less jarring for being predictable. [NM]
Audiences expecting a groovy, Blacula-like blaxploitation spin on vampire mythology from Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult movie Ganja & Hess are in for something else entirely. Gunn’s film—a moody erotic art film about a professor (the quietly charismatic Duane Jones, in his only lead role outside of Night Of The Living Dead) who develops a hunger for blood after being stabbed by a cursed African dagger—is low on graphic violence but high on atmosphere, eroticism, and a fierce spirituality equally rooted in African traditions and the black American church. Gunn delivers the genre goods to some extent with intermittent bursts of highly creative violence and achingly sensual sex, but he Trojan-horses these commercial elements within a dream-like meditation on the nature of violence, sex, destiny, and the African diaspora.
Gunn and his collaborators respect audiences’ attention spans and patience enough to let his story unfold slowly and enigmatically, with an emphasis on mood and tone over conventional shocks. Alas, distributors did not have anywhere near as much faith in audiences, and the 110-minute cut that played at Cannes was hacked to 78 minutes in its theatrically released version, though Kino recently released a restored version. Ganja & Hess was both a product of its time—the adventurous, rule-breaking American cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as the height of the blaxploitation and Black Power era—and ahead of its time, to the point that when Spike Lee wanted to remake the film as Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, he had to take to Kickstarter to raise funding, despite his impressive commercial track record. Even with a proven quantity like Lee at the helm, this sort of challenging, unconventional, proudly bohemian and intellectual fare is a difficult sell, for studios and audiences alike.
No moment better captures the film’s heady mixture of violence and sensuality than when the protagonist’s ferociously carnal lover (Marlene Clark) licks her partner’s bloody scars with furious abandon. [NR]
Chicago never looked uglier or more brutal than when John McNaughton captured its nightmarish underbelly in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, which was filmed in the mid-1980s, but wasn’t released until 1990. The film explores a city invisible to tourists, a nighttime world of cheap thrills, casual violence, and sexual depravity as seen through the eyes of the titular Henry (Michael Rooker, in a frighteningly committed, career-making performance), a remorseless serial killer who singlehandedly eliminates a goodly percentage of the city’s population with the help of his incestuous, pot-dealing sidekick Otis (Tom Towles). Meanwhile, he tentatively romances Otis’ damaged sister, who doesn’t seem too turned off by her suitor’s unfortunate propensity for murder.
The film’s violence is shocking and often stomach-churning in its graphicness, but it never feels gratuitous, and the artistry McNaughton and his collaborators bring to Henry’s senseless murder spree makes its bloodshed all the more disturbing. The film combines the unapologetic nastiness and fearless transgression of an X-rated grindhouse slasher with the psychological depth and intense realism of a John Cassavetes film. Some movies hit with the visceral impact of a punch to the gut. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is more like an icepick straight through the eyeball.
Just about the only time Henry expresses anything resembling joy is during a home invasion where he and Otis terrorize and sexually assault a traumatized family captured on a primitive video camera. He then re-watches the footage at home, savoring the brutality. [NR]
In the wake of 9/11, a wave of hard-R horror films swept through theaters, characterized by scenes of torture and brutality, and lacking the assurance of a “Final Girl” type who will end the killings and restore a sense of normalcy. Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects remains the most striking and potent example, a nasty throwback to the unvarnished horror of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that doubled as a statement on the consequences of torture and revenge. Following up his debut feature, House Of 1000 Corpses—which was far less assured, but had moments of macabre beauty—Zombie revisits the Firefly clan, a Marx brothers-inspired family of redneck killers who claim more victims (R.I.P. Banjo & Sullivan) as they run from a sheriff (William Forsythe) hellbent on making them pay for his brother’s death. In seeking vengeance, the sheriff forfeits his authority and falls into the same moral tar-pit as his adversaries. It isn’t hard to read a political metaphor into that, but even for those disinclined to give Zombie that much credit, The Devil’s Rejects has all the elements that have made him such a distinctive horror auteur: exceptionally detailed production design, colorfully vulgar dialogue, an eclectic soundtrack of vintage and parody songs, and a rich sense of history in both the casting and the texture of the film. It’s also the rare case where a “movie expert” is brought in to help an investigation, leading to a particularly unexpected reference to late-period Otto Preminger.
Though Zombie shows the Fireflys doing appalling things, he also has a certain sick affection for them as outsiders under attack. When events escalate into a climactic showdown against the police, Zombie sends them off, guns a-blazing, to “Freebird.” For once, the use of that ubiquitous anthem of hick liberty feels completely appropriate. [ST]
In 2004, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell helped set the tone for ’00s horror with the gimmick- and gore-filled Saw. With 2010’s Insidious, the team took the genre in the opposite direction. Where Saw shocked audiences by showing everything, Insidious used suggestion and old-fashioned discretion to unnerve viewers. Here, what isn’t seen, or what’s barely glimpsed, is what’s really scary. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play suburbanites who come to think their house is haunted, only to discover the problem goes deeper than that. Wan and Whannell tip their hat to everything from Poltergeist to The Haunting, but the real source of inspiration seems to be the cheap, unsettling films Val Lewton produced in the 1940s. Like Lewton, Insidious uses shadows, slow-burn chills, and offscreen space to tremendous effect, though the film isn’t too proud to juice the shocks with loud noises, as is the way with modern horror.
Wilson’s character uses astral projection to travel to another dimension, where he finds a house that’s just like his own, only filled with living-doll people. It’s obviously just the same set given a creepy makeover, but the effect works anyway, creating a world that’s just a little bit off from, and even scarier than, the one the movie had been living in up to that point. [KP]
Let’s make this clear: Phantasm isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s full of cheapie directorial shortcuts, including a big escape sequence that consists entirely of a character describing an escape, and a scene shot in the dark so director Don Coscarelli wouldn’t have to bother with niceties like a set or props or costumes. The acting is howl-worthy, the continuity is nonexistent, and it ends with a generic “It was all a dream… or was it?” fake-out. But as creepy mythmaking and low-budget supernatural-horror-action, it’s spectacular. Coscarelli (who also wrote, produced, edited, and served as his own DP, with his mother credited on makeup, production design, and wardrobe) started with a mysterious ghoul (played by Angus Scrimm, who immediately became the series’ Robert Englund) digging up and stealing corpses. When a couple of gun-happy local yokels investigate and try to stop him, they find out that his weird conspiracy spans worlds—and three sequels, with a fourth planned for 2015. The premise is ambitious enough to reach well beyond this first weird, cultish, thoroughly enjoyable outing, but this is the one that feels most inventive, idiosyncratic, and authentically scary, because it’s so predicated on the unknown.
It’s all about the first introduction of The Ball: The flying silver killing device that stabs people in the face, then drills through their skulls and into their brains, shooting blood and residue out of its back end like a morbid fountain. It was clear when Phantasm II came out that Coscarelli recognized what most struck viewers about his career launch: The sequel’s tagline was “The Ball is back!” [TR]
The debut feature of gorehound Lucky McKee (The Woman, All Cheerleaders Die) declares itself with a bang in the opening shot of a hysterical woman shrieking as blood pours from her eye. It’s a declaration in a movie that otherwise seems more like an awkward coming-of-age story, until it takes a turn: May (Angela Bettis) is isolated and profoundly awkward, until she fixates on Adam (Jeremy Sisto), whose hands represent a detached erotic ideal for her. As they start a tentative romance, she slowly becomes less freakish and strange—until things fall apart, and she decides to take her mother’s adage “If you can’t find a friend, make one” literally. Made on the cheap, but stylishly and with memorable shocks, May goes to gory extremes, but it feels more extreme in the unusual way it focuses on a female protagonist rather than the usual male slasher, and the way it specifically explores feminine shyness and sexual fixation in a forlorn and knowing way.
The film turns from painful romantic drama to horror in one moment, when May, having watched Adam’s gory experimental black-and-white film about two lovers consuming each other, bites his lip and smears his blood erotically on her chest. When he recoils, she doesn’t understand: “It’s just like your film,” she says plaintively, as he leaves her home and their relationship. It’s the action of a woman with no comprehension of social or sexual norms, trying to be game and please her lover, but his revulsion drives everything that follows. It also says something pointed about the gap between our darkest cinematic fantasies, and what we actually want to experience in real life. [TR]
It’s tough to single out just one of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Roger Corman made with Vincent Price, but The Masque Of The Red Death edges out the others on looks alone. Shot by Nicolas Roeg, the film stars Price as the decadent, satanic Prince Prospero, who lives life to the fullest while the peasants outside starve and suffer from disease. In keeping with the story (though the adaptation is extremely loose), Prospero gets his comeuppance in the end. But that’s only after Price gets a chance to play the character’s twisted villainy to the hilt as he skulks about a castle filled with eye-searingly colorful rooms, uncanny imagery, and orgiastic partygoers. It’s drive-in surrealism at its finest.
One of the film’s creepiest scenes barely involves Price. Eager to commit herself to Satan, Prospero’s consort Juliana (Hazel Court) undergoes a horrifying rite of passage in a fantasy sequence where she’s shrouded in green fog and tormented by sadistic men dressed in the garb of various cultures. When she wakes up, she’s attacked and killed by a bird. Sometimes casting your lot in with Satan isn’t as foolproof as it sounds. [KP]