Though less artful (or reputable) than Halloween, Friday The 13th is in many ways more effective at freaking its audience out from start to finish. Set at abandoned Camp Crystal Lake—where an unhinged woman named Pamela Voorhees still blames irresponsible teens for the drowning of her mentally handicapped son Jason—Friday The 13th is a prototypical example of the 1980s slasher, assembling a group of horny, dope-smoking kids (including a young Kevin Bacon) in the middle of the woods, where they get picked off in increasingly creative ways. A series of mostly terrible sequels and revamps has tarnished the Friday The 13th brand, but the first movie remains a classic, thanks to the way director Sean Cunningham uses picturesque locations and all-consuming darkness, and thanks to Harry Manfredini’s Bernard Herrmann-inspired score, studded with nerve-jangling, breathy “ki-ki-ki’s and “ja-ja-ja”s.
After an hour-plus of a killer emerging from the darkness to skewer and hack, Friday The 13th arrives at a seemingly safe place, with “final girl” Alice having escaped to the middle of Crystal Lake, in daylight, with the police waiting to meet her on the bank. But then the rotting body of Jason Voorhees rises from the water to drag her down. In addition to being Jason’s first real appearance in the series, it’s also one last terrifying “gotcha” from a movie engineered to leave viewers perpetually on edge. [NM]
Ti West’s throwback to ’80s demonic horror has plenty of great period touches—the fashions and hairstyles, the eerily vacant college town, the faded color photography and zooms—and the video release deepened the connection with a promotional clamshell VHS box. But West does it better than it was ever done at the time. Patience is the primary virtue here: When Samantha, a cash-poor college student (Jocelin Donahue), agrees to a “babysitting” job way out in a creepy Victorian home in the middle of nowhere, the situation is every bit sketchy as it sounds, but West holds off on the mayhem for as long as possible. Instead, he just lets the threat of it linger in the air, starting with Samantha meeting her employers (the hulking Tom Noonan, best known as “The Tooth Fairy” in Manhunter, is the first to greet her at the door) and continuing with her exploring a creepy house—and perhaps meeting the old woman she’s been tasked with babysitting. Save for a primo jump scare involving her friend (Greta Gerwig), West doesn’t care to hit the expected horror beats. Instead, he just keeps building tension until the last possible moment, toying masterfully with viewers’ fear of the unknown. The audience knows something is wrong—it isn’t called The House Of The Devil for nothing—but the waiting is the hardest part.
The audience is aware that the house is full of peril, but Samantha isn’t, which raises the possibility of her unwittingly discovering some room or corridor that could seal her doom. In the film’s best sequence, Samantha puts on her Walkman and bounces around the house obliviously to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads To Another.” We wait for the abyss to open up under her dancing feet. [ST]
No one combines horror and comedy quite like Gremlins director Joe Dante. With the help of screenwriter John Sayles, Dante adapted Gary Brandner’s 1977 novel The Howling into a horror film spiked with wry social satire and dark comedy. The film isn’t closely related to the book: Dante’s version follows a newswoman named Karen (Dee Wallace) who goes with her husband to “The Colony,” a remote camp where an eccentric aggregation of weirdoes and misfits take the concept of embracing the animal within to horrific extremes, after being attacked by Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), a deranged slasher with a hairy secret.
The Howling takes comic aim at self-improvement retreats and exploitative network news programs—Karen’s bosses use her as bait to lure the mad slasher out of hiding, with a flagrant disregard for her safety, or anything else besides ratings—without sacrificing primal scares. Sayles’ script is witty and filled with wry in-jokes, including a funny cameo from Dante and Sayles’ mentor Roger Corman, but the film’s real centerpiece is a dazzling werewolf transformation sequence designed by Rob Bottin that revels in old-school craftsmanship and still looks impressive more than 30 years later. The sequence seems to stretch on for eternity in the best possible way, allowing ample time to appreciate every nuance and subtlety of Bottin’s handiwork. (Between this and An American Werewolf In London, 1981 was a very good year for werewolf makeup.) Dante repertory players Picardo and Dick Miller are wonderful as the crazed killer with lycanthropic tendencies and a hilariously sketchy proprietor of an occult bookstore, respectively. It’s bloody, hairy good fun right up to an unforgettable climactic reveal of one of the cutest werewolves ever committed to screen.
It’s impossible to beat Eddie Quist’s transformation from man to wolf, even in this era of ubiquitous CGI. It’s the artisan’s homemade touch that distinguishes the scene, and the film as well. [NR]
Looking for evidence of suburban discord at the height of the Reagan 1980s? A good place to start is The Stepfather, which associates the image of a grinning, blue-eyed family man—devoted husband and father, morally upstanding, a pillar of the community—with serial murder. Played with unsettling wholesomeness by Terry O’Quinn, Jerry Blake seeks out single mothers in small towns in need of a Ward Cleaver type to bring stability to their family. His latest targets are a widow (Shelley Hack) and her daughter (Jill Schoelen), but they aren’t victims yet—only when they fail to live up Jerry’s impossible expectations of what family life should be. O’Quinn is never more psychotic than when he’s perfect, mounting a birdhouse in the backyard, or giving an inspiring speech at the neighborhood cookout. But behind closed doors, Jerry has to deal with a normal teenager—and a suspicious one at that—and that drives him crazier than the average father. Replace Robert Mitchum with O’Quinn and “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” with “Camptown Races” and The Stepfather plays like a Night Of The Hunter update, only with the false values of a preacher transformed into the false values of a Reagan revolutionary. The film exposes the distance between the families of a campaign commercial and the flawed ones that live in the real word. The horror of Jerry Blake is that he keeps on believing the former exists.
When the wheels start to come off at home, Jerry heads to another location to find a different family, repeating the pattern of previous murders. But the change in identity turns out to be confusing to him, too. When his wife catches him referring to himself by a different name, Jerry pauses: “Who am I here?” Then the violence starts. [ST]
It isn’t that there wouldn’t have been a Texas Chain Saw Massacre or a House Of 1000 Corpses without the existence of Jack Hill’s grubby 1964 shocker Spider Baby, but Hill’s vision of a family of redneck psychotics may have softened up horror fans for all the feral bumpkins that followed. As it was, Hill’s story of childlike adults who indulge in rape and cannibalism was so disturbing that it went unreleased for four years, before finally making its way into the early grindhouses with heavy edits, and under different titles. Featuring both horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr. (as the family’s guardian) and future exploitation favorite Sid Haig (as a brutish man-child), Spider Baby marks one of the first occasions where shoestring auteurs like Hill tried to make scary movies less campy and more of an endurance test. Even now, it crawls under viewers’ skins, because so much of what’s happening onscreen is so strange, so assaultive, and so inexplicable.
A stooped-over Virginia dances toward the camera, knives in either hand, with a web-like net between. She then overtakes her victim and cuts off his ear, in a scene that a young Quentin Tarantino surely watched a few times before making Reservoir Dogs. [NM]
Horror movies are more than a genre. They’re a ritual, a rite of passage for every new generation of young people. The more liturgical dimensions of horror cinema, along with the question of why we subject ourselves to—or in some cases derive grisly pleasure from—scary movies are addressed in particularly clever fashion in The Cabin In The Woods. Drew Goddard’s film takes a stock premise from countless horror movies—five teens jaunt off to a remote domicile in a forest, where they accidentally release an unspeakable evil—and complicates it with an elaborate meta-mythology.
Cabin In The Woods’ characters are sacrificial lambs for an bloodthirsty audience (i.e. us) whose every move is determined by the careful manipulations of two men (i.e. stand-ins for the film’s co-writers, Goddard and producer Joss Whedon). As the true motivation for the cabin is revealed, a whole orgy of horror motifs are unleashed on the remaining teens, building to a climax that’s nihilistic even by the standards of a bleak genre. The Cabin In The Woods aspires to be the ultimate horror movie, in that it deconstructs and reconstructs almost every single cliché in the genre’s history, and in that its ending suggests that its library of well-worn tropes have become so toxically overused that the only logical course of action at this point is to tear it all down and start again from scratch.
The Cabin In The Woods generates a good amount of humor observing the absolute heartlessness of the people who are controlling the mysterious cabin. As the the ramp-up to their destruction begins, the secret organization in charge (middle-managed by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) takes bets on what form the teens’ killers will take. Wagers are written down on an enormous whiteboard, which you can admire thanks to your DVD player’s pause button. That one shot has more laughs than a lot of so-called horror comedies. [MS]
Brian De Palma made his reputation on documentaries and satirical low-budget comedies, but Sisters changed the course of his career, establishing him as a twisted kind of genius at making thrillers. An offbeat riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Rear Window, Sisters stars Margot Kidder as a Quebecois model named Danielle and as her deranged, detached Siamese twin Dominique. Jennifer Salt plays Grace, an alt-weekly investigative journalist who lives across the street from the twins, and looks into their background—and their Svengali-like doctor (William Finley)—after she sees Dominique stab Danielle’s lover. Though packaged like a gory drive-in horror picture, Sisters adds a touch of class with Bernard Herrmann’s score, along with healthy dollops of De Palma perversity. Throughout Sisters, De Palma toys with audience expectations: revealing that a vile act of voyeurism is actually a scene from a TV show, making cake-decorating look sexually suggestive, and turning the real 1970s America of corrupt cops and sick gurus into a ludicrously pulpy B-movie.
In an ingenious use of split-screens, De Palma shows Grace calling the police on half the screen, while on the other, he shows some of her cop-bashing newspaper columns, explaining why no one’s in a hurry to come to her aid. It’s a funny gag that also functions as a suspense-heightener—a classic De Palma move. [NM]
Kansas-based director Herk Harvey interrupted a long career making industrial and educational movies to shoot his sole feature, 1962’s Carnival Of Souls. Filmed on an extremely modest budget, partly at an abandoned Salt Lake City-area amusement park, the film follows Nancy (Candace Hilligoss), a car-accident survivor, as she attempts to start over as a church organist in a new town. Once there, she’s haunted by strange visions, including an otherworldly man (played by Harvey) whose image follows her everywhere. Harvey’s film provides another example of how cheap can be scary. In one stretch, Nancy discovers others can’t see or hear her. At another point, she finds her radio will only play the eerie organ music that serves as the film’s score. There are no special effects involved in either, yet both play like the spirit world exerting its will on reality by pushing on its weak spots.
After slowly building tension, Carnival Of Souls makes its first scare count. While driving, Nancy looks out the window, only to see the spectral reflection of the ghoulish man looking back at her. It gives the film its first, but not last, jarring moment after a period of sustained eeriness. Harvey then alternates between the two approaches to great effect, like a bad dream that waxes and wanes in intensity, but refuses to end. [KP]
David Robert Mitchell’s first film, The Myth Of The American Sleepover, was a Richard Linklater-esque ensemble drama about teenagers coming of age in the suburbs of Detroit. The vaguely retro production design and wandering structure, which ambled from one set of characters to the next, gave American Sleepover the look and feel of a childhood memory. It Follows closely hews to Mitchell’s established aesthetic, but if American Sleepover was like a dream of high school, It Follows is a nightmare—and one of the most striking American indie horror films in years.
Its allegorically rich premise involves the passage of a sort of supernatural STD: Once an infected person has sex, they transmit an invisible pursuer, which will continue to stalk its prey to the ends of the earth until it catches and kills them. Mitchell’s unstoppable, shapeshifting creature produces some genuinely terrifying sequences, and it’s an obvious metaphor for adolescent paranoia about sex. But It Follows also works as a heartbreaking story about the lingering effects of trauma. Try as heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) might to put her abuse behind her, it refuses to leave her alone until she confronts it head-on.
The movie’s prologue sets the stage for the panic to come, as a frightened teenage girl bursts out of her house, runs a full circle around a slowly panning camera, then gets into a car and speeds off. She arrives at a beach in the evening; a smash cut reveals her dead, mutilated body the next morning. This is no American sleepover; this is the kind of movie kids watch at an American sleepover to scare themselves silly. [MS]
Our Movie Of The Week Keynote on Re-Animator dives deep into what makes the film so exceptional: It mixes hyperbolic gore effects, the unnerving horror of the H.P. Lovecraft source material, and comedy, in ways that effectively disarm some of the more extreme choices. Here’s a film where it’s almost palatable—and definitely funny—when a leering severed head sexually molests a screaming woman, or the intestines of a gibbering corpse explode into attacking tentacles. Herbert West (the ever-reliable Jeffrey Combs) creates a glowing reagent capable of bringing the dead back to life—or at least turning them into murderous zombies. Or horrifying zombie-cats, depending on their species in life. Director Stuart Gordon doesn’t respect Lovecraft’s original version so much as he bathes in its ghoulishness, and plays it for camp—without losing the shocks or the scares.
Herbert West gets more manic as the movie continues, and just like Lovecraft’s version of the character, he rapidly loses any lingering audience sympathies as his sheer recklessness overcomes any real interest in science, or any professed humanitarian urges. As his experiments get more out of hand, he decapitates his supervisor, Dr. Hill (David Gale) to protect his secrets. And then, instead of taking the need for murder as a wake-up call about dialing back on his insanity a bit, he shoots up both the head and the body with his reagent, muttering “Yes. Parts. I’ve never done whole… parts.” As though the only thing turning his reactivated corpses into zombies instead of solid, peaceable citizens was the fact that all their bits were nominally attached to each other. It’s a doubling-down on insanity that’s simultaneously creepy and pretty hilarious. [TR]