I fucking love horror movies. Night of the Living Dead and Jaws are two of my earliest movie-watching experiences, and NOTLD, oddly enough, was one of the formative experiences that made me want to write novels. The atmosphere of dread and encroaching threat inspired me. It's something I tried to capture in my first novel. Over the past two weeks I watched many, many horror movies. Its ostensibly for something I'm thinking about writing, but it's also for my own pleasure.
Babysitter Wanted (2008)
Jonas Barnes & Michael Manasseri
This was the biggest surprise of my horror marathon. Hear the title and you may think, as I did: Oh, it's House of the Devil, except I've never heard of it. It's in fact much better than House of the Devil, which I also enjoyed. Do not watch the trailer or take anything from the poster, which suggest that it is torture porn. It's not. The nastily elegant script concerns, as you might imagine, a young woman who answers an ad for a babysitter and finds herself in great danger. This rather familiar premise tilts a little with the introduction of certain atmospheric details (a creepy child who will not take off his cowboy hat, a fridge full of meat and buttermilk) and then takes a hard left turn about halfway through the film, a turn which I will not spoil. I get a very specific kind of aesthetic pleasure from this sort of basic structural ingenuity; it's like watching a casual magic trick.
A Serbian Film (2010)
What to say about this? A Serbian porn star, now retired, is offered a tremendous amount of money to return to his old profession for one last film -- on the condition that he know nothing about the film before shooting begins. Needless to say, the nature of the film is rather beyond traditional pornography. A Serbian Film is a glossily made feature, with a real budget, good actors, and professional technical standards that seem comparable to a mid-level Hollywood film. It also contains scenes of sexual and homicidal depravity that are, to put it mildly, bracing. Allegedly the film is a comment on the relationship of the Serbian people to the Serbian government, but I don't know enough about that situation to comment intelligently on the film's nuances (if they exist) in that regard. I just know that it is grueling to sit through, and I mostly kept watching out of sick fascination and curiosity. When it is over there is no sense of groping intelligence or transgressive beauty, as there was with Martyrs, a similarly beyond-horrific horror movie I watched earlier this year.
The Stepfather (1987)
A classic. I'd seen it before but watching it again was a pleasure. The Donald Westlake script is like a template of how to structure a "Suburban Normalcy Disrupted" horror movie, and the plot--about an angry man who marries single mothers, then kills them and their children when they "disappoint" him by not fulfilling his idea of a perfect family--is a vicious satire of Reagan-era family values. Terry O'Quinn (Locke from Lost) is the Stepfather, and the scenes where his grip on his assumed identity starts to slip ("Wait... who am I here?") are profoundly creepy. The subplot with the survivor of the previous massacre trying to track him down is a little dull, but doesn't detract in any significant way. Like The Shining--although not quite, since The Shining is the best horror movie ever made--The Stepfather exploits the inherent menace of the father figure. Also, it has a great, creepy score.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
An infamous and infamously banned horror film about a married couple who visit an island where the adults seem to have disappeared and the child... well, something is wrong with the children. The woman is pregnant, which is an easy and reliable way to make a female character more vulnerable but has a special resonance, obviously, in this film. I was a bit disappointed by this not-particularly-upsetting film, in part because of its use of horrifying footage over the opening credits, in which we see children ravaged by global conflicts. Nothing in the film that follows matches the horrifying effect of that footage. Space and sound, two of the most vital weapons in the horror filmmaker's arsenal, are not employed to any striking effect. The film is conceptually horrifying, but not all that disturbing or scary, and not nearly so profound as it believes itself to be.
Juan Piquer Simón
A camp horror classic. Not even remotely scary, and not intended to be, this is the ultimate early 80s ridiculous sexy-teens-get-killed horror movie. It's sort of like Clue, or like one of those Grindhouse trailers, except it's a real movie. And it's fucking delightful.
Session 9 (2001)
Another one I'd seen before but needed to watch again for research purposes. Shot on grainy digital video and almost entirely at an abandoned New England mental hospital, Session 9 makes stellar use of space and sound to disrupt and unsettle. The actors take a naturalistic style, talking over each other, bantering, playing everything subtle. It drags a little, but mostly it works. And Josh Lucas wandering around with the big metal spike in his eye is particularly memorable.
Not a "good"movie, but an interesting one, with far more gloss and pedigree than it deserves. The twist is conceptually horrifying, so inherently creepy that it carries the whole movie. The little girl is a little more "creepy" than she should be--you know something's wrong with her right away, and it's hard to believe that these people would want to adopt her. The Freudian aspect of the whole thing is the most compelling part. It feels cheap the way they open with a horrifying dream sequence, as if to reassure that this is a horror movie even though we don't even meet the "orphan" until more than 15 minutes into the film.
The Strangers (2008)
Saw it in the theater when it came out. From a narrative perspective this is just a straightforward home invasion movie. But the execution makes it remarkable. The first half is the scariest part of any movie I've seen in the last ten years. The image of Liv Tyler standing in the house while, unbeknownst to her, a masked figure stands calmly in the doorway behind her... fucking amazing. Whatever Bertino makes next, I'm there. I remember watching this in a Times Square movie theater one afternoon when i was supposed to be at work, and being too freaked out to go back to work afterward. I just walked around.
The Orphanage (2007)
The best movie on this whole list, and a marvel of screenwriting structure and ingenuity. I'd already seen it many times, but it remains scary as shit. (The only disappointing element is the very end, which diminishes an element of menace.) The scene in which she has to play the game she used to play as a little girl, but all her playmates are now dead, is one of the best horror scenes of all time.
The Signal (2007)
David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
The first 30 minutes are extraordinary and deeply unsettling. A woman leaves her lover's apartment, where a strange signal has come over the TV, and encounters an aggressive man in the parking garage. Fleeing him, she returns to her apartment building, where the halls are crowded with ranting, angry people. A sense of terrible claustrophobia and dread is achieved. The digital video photography is used to great effect. In the woman's apartment, her husband and his friends are beginning to heatedly argue.... Unfortunately the film is divided into three parts, and after the first one (which I believe was directed by Bruckner), the movie turns into something completely different, a splattery slapstick reminiscent of early Peter Jackson. Mildly entertaining, but still shitty, and totally paltry compared to the opening. After a while I just went back and watched the first 30 minutes again.