Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street tends to get lumped in with slasher movies, but it’s really its own sort of film, a strange, frightening fantasia in which a small town’s secret starts invading its children’s dreams. It taps into the unease beneath the surface of 1980s America and gives form to that unease via Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a ghoulish, pitiless demonic force (before he became a wisecracking clown in the sequels). It uses dream logic to blur the line between reality and the dream world, letting Craven create one striking image after another using the stuff of everyday life.
As heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) attempts to flee Freddy by climbing the stairs—already a bad move—her feet sink into them. The moment lives up to the film’s title, feeling like the part of a nightmare when physics stops working, the body shuts down, and the boogeyman gets to do his worst. [KP]
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” That’s the explanation Peter (Ken Foree) offers his friends as they watch hordes of zombies try to get into the abandoned mall they’ve barricaded themselves inside. Really, though, that’s just a guess Peter cribbed from something his grandfather, a voodoo priest, used to say. Ultimately, no one knows why the dead begin to rise and hunt for human flesh in George Romero’s films. The zombies in Romero’s work are a malleable metaphor for all kinds of real-world anxieties, from viral epidemics to the collapse of industrial civilization to consumerism run amok.
That last idea is used to particularly wry effect in Dawn Of The Dead, where the zombies shamble through shopping malls in an eerie re-creation of their earlier, only-slightly-less-brain-dead existence. (“This was an important place in their lives,” one character quips when asked why the zombies mass at the mall, even though there are only a handful of people inside to eat.) Hidden away in this shopping center some time after the events of Romero’s subgenre-spawning Night Of The Living Dead, four friends try to start their own miniature society. But their efforts are undermined, occasionally by zombies, but more frequently by the true villain of Romero’s Dead series: humanity and its boundless capacity for greed, stupidity, and violence.
Dawn Of The Dead’s surreal highlight comes after the survivors have finally locked down the mall, and exterminated the remaining zombies inside. Free at last to roam, they do what anyone would do in their situation: Shop. They try on clothes and watches, snack on exotic groceries, and even steal thousands of dollars from the bank. (“You never know,” Ken jokes as he takes wads of $20 bills from a register.) The mall, it turns out, is an important place in their lives, too. [MS]
In the 1978 character study Martin, zombie maestro George Romero transports vampire lore from the realm of the phantasmagorical and European to the mundane, sad, and hopelessly American. In the process, it trades in the castles of Transylvania for the depressing houses and wood paneling of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and a suave, urbane sexuality for the tortured yearnings of a virgin whose hunger for blood is exceeded by a yearning for human connection so vivid, he pours his heart out to a radio-show host over the airwaves. This, even though the host mocks him and calls him “The Count.” Martin is both pitiable and dangerous. He’s a monster who sedates women and cuts them with razor blades to get the blood pouring, but he’s also a stunted man-child, desperately in need of a hug.
As Martin, the pale, weirdly animalistic, oddly innocent title character, John Amplas is closer to Bud Cort in Harold & Maude than Bela Lugosi in Dracula. He’s an intense, quiet young loner whose self-identification as a vampire registers as a particularly extreme form of alienation: You don’t have to thirst for human blood to feel like an outsider, or to feel fatally removed from the brotherhood of man. Martin occupies a world of soul-sickness and free-floating ennui, drifting into the lives of other strange, sad lost souls. It’s about the horrors of loneliness, sadness, and alienation. It’s also a poignant, tragic romance about a man who finds an escape from his misery, but too late.
Martin establishes itself as an altogether different type of vampire movie with an opening sequence where the title character stalks a beautiful woman on a train, and begs her to stop screaming while he attempts to subdue her. It’s purposefully messy and chaotic, the work of a man who must resort to pleading and brute force because he lacks a vampire’s natural gift for seduction. [NR]
David Lynch’s deeply disturbing feature debut, made over the course of five years in rushes whenever he could get funding and access to equipment, remains his strangest project. A dreamlike, surreal story about the extreme anxieties of parenthood and family life, it centers on a man named Henry (Jack Nance) whose girlfriend spontaneously gives birth to a hideously deformed creature, which they must take care of—though before that, there are terror-laden images of a mysterious planet, a hideous ruin of a town, a creepy apartment, and the girlfriend’s exceedingly odd family. The revolutionary sound design—layers and levels of ambient noise that pile on the dread—has drawn attention for decades, and so has the practical effect of the baby-creature, which Lynch is still secretive about to this day. But the stunningly crisp, deep black-and-white cinematography is just as remarkable, and so are the unnerving, overbearing images out of nightmare. It’s a weird experience, but above all, a specific and powerful one.
In a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s dream-logic, Henry looks at his gasping baby-thing and worries that it’s ill. Lynch cuts to his concerned face, then—with a shocking blare of music—back to the baby-thing, which is suddenly hideously coated with black pustules that look like flies on a corpse. “Oh, you are sick!” Henry says, with no more than mild surprise. The abrupt, unexpectedly stomach-churning image, combined with the character’s minimal alarm, is the literal stuff of nightmares, where anything can happen and be accepted as normal without warning. It’s a warning that Lynch can do literally anything he wants to these characters (and through them, to the audience), which just heightens the horror further. [TR]
Vampire movies tend to fall into one of two categories: Those that play up the gothic romanticism, immersed in atmosphere and the seductive curse of eternal love, or those that are total bloodbaths. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark works brilliantly on both sides of the divide, wedding a love story that has the synth-driven allure of a Michael Mann production with a shit-kicking vampire Western that explodes with shocking ferocity. One side leads into another: Getting recruited into a gang of Midwestern night-stalkers—the word “vampire” is never uttered, but it’s understood—offers the promise of eternal life and love, but the reality of feeding leads to acts of breathtaking savagery. Bigelow manages to honor the spirit of classic vampire iconography while opening up the genre to more modern ambience and bloodletting.
At Near Dark’s center is a doomed romance between a sensitive cowboy (Adrian Pasdar) and a pixie-ish beauty (Jenny Wright) that’s wholly innocent and genuine, despite the fact that the latter runs with a clan of bloodthirsty beasts, led by Lance Henriksen. Their moony, Tangerine Dream-scored infatuation thrives when they’re alone against the stars, but curdles in the company of true monsters. Bigelow tells a uniquely fatalistic love story, connecting the passion between them with eternal damnation, and she plays the hellish consequences to the hilt. There’s nothing subtle or delicate about her bloodsuckers: They stride into the room like Western black-hats, with spurred boots and six-shooters, and turn it into a moving feast.
The famed roadhouse sequence shows the vampire clan at their most vicious. With Henriksen and Bill Paxton, the most venal of the bunch, leading the way, they break up a bar full of roughnecks. “What you people want?” asks the bartender. “Just a couple more minutes of your time,” replies Henriksen. “About the same duration as the rest of your life.” [ST]
The Blair Witch Project had such a profound effect on pop culture, it isn’t too much of a stretch to divide horror movies into two discrete eras: pre-Blair Witch and post-Blair Witch. It also easily registers as the most divisive and controversial horror film of the decade. Detractors didn’t just dislike it, they found it a screeching, amateurishly shot, unwatchable nightmare. But 15 years and countless imitators, spoofs, and knock-offs later, it holds up surprisingly well. Co-writers and co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez cultivate an air of creeping dread and unease from the very first frame, even before its trio of hapless documentary filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) head off into the woods to investigate an urban legend about the titular region-specific Wiccan practitioner, and end up hopelessly lost. As they move farther and farther away from the comforts of civilized society, the tension builds to almost unbearable levels.
The Blair Witch Project offers a master class in inference and suggestion. It’s a modern, found-footage twist on the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” Both powerfully illustrate that the horrors conjured up by paranoid minds are infinitely more terrifying than actual monsters. Very little happens over the course of the film’s 80 minutes, beyond screaming, running, and panicking. But the suggestion that something terrible lurks just around the corner increases and increases, up to the cryptic yet terrifying conclusion. It’s hard to imagine another film deriving such spine-tingling terror from its heroes discovering piles of rocks. The Blair Witch Project spawned an entire subgenre of found-footage horror films. (And with it, the eternal question, “Why don’t they just put down the camera and run the fuck away?”, though Blair Witch answers that question more satisfyingly and convincingly than its army of imitators.) But time has done little to blunt its primal impact.
Bundles of sticks and piles of rocks are scary enough, but when the documentarians encounter what looks like a tiny heart in the middle of the woods, it kicks the intensity and horror up to a whole new level. [NR]
Sam Raimi’s sequel-cum-remake of The Evil Dead remains the gold standard of horror-comedies, a relentlessly gruesome, hilarious fusion of modern splatterfests and callbacks to old monster movies, Ray Harryhausen, and The Three Stooges. It takes Raimi six minutes to do a quick recap of the first movie—cabin in the woods, necking, playback of Book Of The Dead passages, abduction, possession, decapitation with a shovel—before heading straight into scenes of Bruce Campbell’s rubber-faced Ash Williams beating back evil with a double-barreled shotgun and a chainsaw. There are no rules governing what form that evil will take: It possesses Ash’s hand, requiring him to do battle against his own body, laughing maniacally as he severs his own arm at the elbow. It drips and then gushes blood from the wall, blasting him with the force of a firehose. And it just keeps coming, from inside the cabin, where inanimate things come mockingly to life, to the woods outside, where it approaches in endless waves.
Evil Dead II brings a few more characters into the mix—most notably the daughter of the professor who discovered and dictated the book—but ultimately, Campbell sets the tone. Though there are shocks aplenty in Raimi’s anything-goes approach to supernatural horror, Campbell’s Ash has drifted so far past the point of grief that he takes the center of a pitched battle against the undead—one in which he’s slapped around repeatedly and just keeps coming back for more. When the objects in the cabin cackle in unison, he cackles right back; when he gets slapped around, he shakes himself off, Stooges-style, and goes on the attack. Raimi barely lets a second go by without sensation, and for midnight audiences, Evil Dead II plays like an amusement-park ride, whooshing along to screeches and squeals of delight. For cult moviegoers, Campbell became an icon of slaphappy heroism.
As Evil Dead II heads into a final confrontation, Ash bursts into the woodshed and jerry-rigs a metal prosthetic to fit around the stump of his severed right arm. With a satisfying click, he snaps the chainsaw into place while the shotgun dangles from his left hand. Ash saws off the end of the shotgun with the chainsaw, gives it a Western twirl, and slips it into a holster he’s strapped to his back. The camera zooms in for a close-up: “Groooovy.” [ST]
Imagine, if you will, a time before zombie movies. It isn’t easy. And, sure, there were movies with zombies in them before Night Of The Living Dead, tales of voodoo and the supernatural like I Walked With A Zombie. But zombies as we know them—the shambling, flesh-hungry, shoot-them-in-the-head-or-they’ll-just-keep-coming-for-you zombies—began with a low-budget film from Pittsburgh-based director George Romero and the intrepid crew he assembled to bring the dead to life. It was the perfect movie to accompany the final act of the 1960s, stranding a bunch of normal people in an old farmhouse as the world around them turned upside down, even if the political subtext was largely incidental. Romero, for instance, has said that casting of African-American actor Duane Jones, and the implications his casting brought to the film’s horrifying final moments, simply came about because he was the best actor who auditioned for the part.
Besides, no one would have paid attention to the politics if the scares didn’t work. Made with limited resources but a lot of verve, Night Of The Living Dead uses its limitations to its advantage. The single location adds to the claustrophobia, and the black-and-white photography lends it a documentary feel. As the refugees from the zombie plague argue over what to do, their options start to disappear while the horde outside grows in size and hunger. The film spawned nightmares and a busy subgenre, but even the most inspired imitators have done nothing to blunt the original’s impact.
Night Of The Living Dead’s first scene is also one of its best. While reluctantly visiting the family cemetery plot, a brother taunts his sister by suggesting the man walking toward them is really some kind of ghoul. Then, to their horror, they discover his taunts were right. When he attacks, it’s as if the world of horror movies had been dragged into the mundane world of the everyday. The film is a bit like that, too. [KP]
There are dozens—maybe hundreds—of movies about knife-wielding maniacs chasing nubile babysitters. What puts John Carpenter’s Halloween in a class by itself is its peerless craft. Its gory business is meticulously directed, staged, and lit (or in many cases, unlit). Like the sadistic murderer at its center, it proceeds patiently, milking every moment for maximum suspense. It opens with one of the most disturbing sequences in horror cinema; a stalking and murder of a young woman from the perspective of her killer, who, at the scene’s conclusion, is revealed to be her 6-year-old brother Michael. (Much of the violence in Halloween is seen through children’s eyes, which makes it seem even more threatening and larger than life.) Having properly implicated the audience in the violence to come, Carpenter shifts ahead 15 years, to when the adult Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and sets his sights on the teenage residents of his Illinois hometown.
The film credits Nick Castle, who played the adult Michael Myers, as “The Shape,” and for much of the film, that’s all he is; a nearly abstract figure of menace who appears, then almost immediately disappears, from the backgrounds of shots. The nine other movies in the franchise (so far) add reasons for Myers’ madness—familial revenge, druid curses—but Carpenter understood that the character was at his scariest as an unexplained force that can’t be reasoned with or stopped. At the end of the film, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) repeatedly puts Michael down with sewing needles or his own enormous kitchen knife, but he keeps getting up for more. Halloween offers no happy ending and no release of tension for the audience, who are left to leave the theater peering around every corner and into every darkened room, wondering who might be waiting there.
At Halloween’s climax, therapist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) shoots Michael six times, but seconds later, The Shape is gone. Just before the closing credits, Carpenter’s eerie score rises over a series of shots of suburban houses and the sound of Michael’s labored breathing. The implication: This guy is just getting started, and you could be next. [MS]
Twenty-five years before The Blair Witch Project achieved pre-release viral status thanks to a savvy word-of-mouth marketing campaign that pretended it was actual real-life footage of some horrific deaths, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre followed a similar path. Long before viral marketing was a recognized phenemenon, director Tobe Hooper and his crew pretended that their low-budget splatter movie was a 100-percent-true story, and that everything audiences saw onscreen had happened to real people. It’s a smart trick, playing off low-budget filmmaking and the necessary technical simplicity as raw realism—and it works to this day, just as it worked back then. Texas Chain Saw Massacre looks cheap, but it feels immediate and vital, more like being in the middle of a horrific experience than watching it onscreen.
Hooper’s $300,000 movie follows five friends into tiny-town rural Texas, where they run across a cannibalistic family and in particular a hulking, chainsaw-wielding character forever after referred to as Leatherface, for his battered, clumsily stitched-together leather mask. As with so many other iconic killers, Leatherface makes the movie—not with Freddy’s quips or Michael Myers’ looming omnipresence or Jason’s implacablity, but with shocking speed and the assurance of a professional butcher. The horror of Leatherface is the horror of real-world violence, which often happens abruptly and without warning; Hooper doesn’t bother with Hitchcockian niceties of long teases and audience tension, he just has death come unexpectedly, and with maximal brute force. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is memorable for its disturbing images and its visceral impact, plus the endless implications of a murderer with a chainsaw in hands. (And also for its striking use of eerie sunset light.) But it’s even more memorable for its bluntness, and the frank suggestion that death could be waiting around the corner literally anywhere.
Like Halloween, Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t kill off the villains, it just gives the Final Girl—established as a tradition in this moment—the chance to flee the scene. Leatherface, having just barely missed her, does a dance in the road, swinging his chainsaw wildly around in circles. The scene highlights why murderers with shapeless masks have become such an enduring terror in horror films—with no facial cues available, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s whirling in frustration, fury, ecstasy, or something else entirely. No matter what, it’s a chilling portrayal of raw madness, implying that this kind of lethal insanity will continue lurking in back corners of America, lying in wait for the next unwitting victim. [TR]