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]
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]
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]