underrated halloween movie picks

[This was actually supposed to be posted on Wednesday October 29.  Then on Thursday… and then Halloween came around and it still wasn’t up.  Now it’s November 2 and well… Halloween really is every day for those who love horror and the macabre.

You love horror movies and want to host a marathon of them for Halloween… only problem is: you’ve seen everything!  What to do?  You’ve seen all of the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies, you’ve had your fill of zombies, you’ve worn out your discs of Argento, Bava, and you want something a little edgier than your beloved Universal monsters, Hammer horrors, and wispy Val Lewtons.  What to do?  Here are my picks for some underrated horror films sure to scare, disturb, or freak you out.

Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil are a married couple in peril.  She wants a divorce and her emotionally detached husband doesn’t.  So she does what any person would do in her situation… she has an affair with a monster.  Or something like that.  Crazy, brutal, surreal, bloody, and did I mention… crazy?  This is the trailer for the shorter American cut of the film, thankfully no longer available.

The Keep (1983)

Not a great movie by any means.  In fact, the second half is downright unintentionally hilarious, hideous, and memorable in all the wrong ways.  Up to that point, though, Michael Mann’s one foray into the eldritch regions of cosmic horror is pretty damn good and is a faithful interpretation of F. Paul Wilson’s Lovecraftian-styled vampire novel.  I think this film’s unavailibility on DVD has helped it generate a cult appeal that… well, would wear off pretty quickly if people actually watched it.

Having said that… there are some amazingly hypnotic scenes early on–e.g. the opening few minutes, the discovery by the two Wehrmacht soldiers of the hidden tomb, Scott Glenn’s “awakening” and his subsequent journey to the Keep–that easily separated this from the glut of slasher and gore films flooding the screens around the same time.  Hopefully, Paramount will unleash Mann’s “director’s cut” (rumored to be 180 mins) onto BluRay and DVD soon and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by how wrong I am about that second half.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

This is one of director John Carpenter’s lesser known movies, but one that has always had its share of supporters… me being one of them, though I didn’t come on board until the mid-1990s.  It has two terrible lead performances by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, some hilarious unintentionally funny scenes, and yet… yet… it scares me.  In fact, it contains one of the scariest moments that I’ve ever seen in film.  And no, it has nothing to do with Jameson Parker.  My gods, what was Carpenter thinking when he hired him?  Guess he came cheap.

Santa Sangre (1989)

Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, no stranger to surrealism and provocative subject matter (see the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain), here conjures up what is arguably his most cohesive and overall best film.  It’s also a strangely moving film, while never abandoning the grotesqueness and violence that frequently shape Jodorowsky’s films.

The Reflecting Skin (1990)

The nightmare of childhood indeed.  Plenty of great films have been made about the loneliness, pain, and horrors of adolescence–Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, Robert Mulligan’s The Other, Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Leolo, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to name just a few–and though I don’t think Philip Ridley’s feature debut deserves to be placed in the pantheon, it sure does pull you down into its dark undercurrents, leaving you unsettled and lost afterward.  I haven’t seen it since 1990, so my recollection of it may be a bit foggy.  But I often think back upon the film’s American gothic sensibility and surrealistic touches… and that awful moment with the frog.  And then there’s that thing in the barn… and those greasers in the car… and that vampire….

Here’s the trailer.  Also look out for the great Viggo Mortensen in an early role.  Mortensen would team up again with Ridley for the director’s second film, The Passion of Darkly Noon.

Dust Devil (1992)

When South African director Richard Stanley’s post-modernist science fiction/horror Hardware was released in 1990, it seemed like the work of a true stylist and pessimistic visionary… a long fetid industrial howl in complete opposition to the overblown escapist fantasies that the Hollywood studies churn out and have perfected.  Hardware felt like a true cinematic comrade to the so-called cyberpunk literary sub-genre that was already burning out around that time.

Hardware wasn’t a hit when it came out and it quickly disappeared from theater screens in the US.  I managed to see it three times at the cinema and eagerly wanted to know where this Richard Stanley was going to lure us next.

But when Dust Devil was finally released a few years later, it arrived straight to video from Paramount as an 87 minute mess (courtesy of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax) and I was left frustrated by its incoherence. Then I read a review in Sight & Sound where a longer cut of it had been released, fleshing out the film’s more mythic ideas as well as the storyline involving Zakes Mokae as cop on the hunt of the supernatural serial killer played by Robert Burke.  Thankfully, the “Final Cut” and an even longer workprint are readily available on DVD, giving us an opportunity to reevaluate it.  Now, if only Stanley would direct a new feature.

Here’s the video trailer for the “Final Cut.”  Warning: graphic violence.

Dark Waters (1993)

The 1990s were not a great time for the supernatural horror film, especially of the European variety.  But for lovers of Argento and Fulci, Mariano Baino’s feature-length debut is a hot shot of sinister atmosphere and monstrous evil.  While pretty much ignored in the years after its release, the film has garnered a much deserved cult audience since its stellar US DVD release a few years back from NoShame.  A minor classic to be sure.

Cemetery Man (1994)

Here’s another brilliant, inspired Euro cult classic from around the same time as Baino’s film.  Although most serious horror aficionados were familiar with director Michele Soavi from his numerous supporting roles in films like Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Lamberto Bava’s Demons, and many others, as well as his own directoral work with StageFright and The Church, it was Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man that made many of us realize how brilliant Soavi truly was.  Based on the long-running Italian fumetti (comic book) Dylan Dog, the film was unavailable legally for years in the US before finally being given a disastrous theatrical run a couple of years later.  The best Italian horror film of the 1990s, without a doubt.  And a zombie film to boot… when zombies were far from being hip.

Dead Birds (2004)

Now for one of the best American horror films from this decade, the supernatural Western Dead Birds.  Starting off like The Wild Bunch when a group of AWOL Confederate soldiers rob and shoot up a bank, the film careens into Lovecraftian cosmic horror when the bandits retreat to an abandoned plantation mansion.  Strong performances, especially from Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, and Isaiah Washington, and a deliberate pace help draw us into the creeping inevitable doom these characters face.  Highly recommended.  Why this wasn’t given a proper theatrical release from Columbia Pictures is beyond me.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Premiering at the 2005 HP Lovecraft Film Festival in my hometown Portland, Oregon (where I first saw it and reviewed it for VideoScope magazine), this short is a true labor of love.  Based on Lovecraft’s tale of eldritch terror and madness from beyond the stars, the film is a black and white homage to silent film (think Guy Maddin mixed with Weird Tales) and is surprisingly faithful as well.  Until Guillermo Del Toro finally makes the long rumored At the Mountains of Madness… this is the supreme Lovecraft adaptation around.  And there’s even a stop-motion sequence too!

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walled about with silence: the ghost ship

It begins with our hapless young protagonist, a naive and idealistic Third Officer of the ship Altair, Tom Merriam (played by the bland but inoffensive Russell Wade), encountering a blind beggar (Alec Craig) singing “Blow the Man Down” on the wharf. Merriam tosses him a coin and the blind man precisely guesses that the inexperienced young officer is in fact young, an officer, and bound for troubled waters aboard the ship. Merriam–a quick-smiling idealist with a deep faith in the innate goodness in man–genially scoffs at the poverty row Tiresias. On the ship, Merriam meets a member of the crew and politely asks him where the captain is. The crewman, an intense man with bulging eyes and the physique of someone at ease with their body, says nothing and instead motions up to the bridge with the point of the knife he has been sharpening on a whetstone. Merriam, looking uneasy for the first time, leaves the strange man to his task.

In any other film, the camera would follow Merriam as he exits the scene to meet with the captain, here played by Richard Dix. Instead, Nicholas Musuraca’s camera remains on actor Skelton Knaggs’ memorable features (he was one of Lewton’s familiar troupe of bit players) and then slowly presses in deeper as a hauntingly plaintive voice-over lures us beneath the surface of the film, to where its true power nestles:

“This is another man I can never know… because I cannot talk with him. For I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men… but in my own silence… I can hear things they cannot hear… Know things they can never know.”

It’s a daring moment, but not unpleasant. It should be jarring, but instead it reminds us that we are entering the chthonic realm of dark fantasy and poetry, where blind carny seers toss off boardwalk prophecies and a mute seaman foretells his own place within the narrative just beginning to unfold. This is the horror film according to producer Val Lewton, a man who supposedly proclaimed “Death is good” when asked what the message of his film The Seventh Victim was.

When I was in my early teens, bingeing on horror films of all types–black & white silents, Universal and Hammer horrors, 1950s SF/creature feature hybrids with rubber-suited baddies, post-Night of the Living Dead shockers right up to the slashers and gore movies that were de rigueur in the early to mid-1980s–for some reason, the Val Lewton produced films slipped right by me. I knew who Lewton was, certainly, and had read about him in Carlos Clarens’ seminal 1967 study of the genre “An Illustrated History of the Horror Film,” a book I used to read over and over and over. But this was the time of Maniac, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House. Poltergeist, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Val Lewton’s dusky psychological revenants were completely outside my range of appreciation.

In my late teens and early twenties, I got hip to Lewton. But I still felt removed from their hermetic stage bound realms, and though I could acknowledge the artistry involved, it all seemed too literary, sexless and pretentious. I hadn’t seen all of the films at that point–only Cat People (and I preferred Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake starring Nastassja Kinski), Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and I Walked With a Zombie. All of them with wonderful visual epiphanies, flickers of brilliance–the midnight swim in Cat People, the nightmarish crypt sequence in Isle of the Dead, the after hours sojourn in I Walked With a Zombie to name just a few–but the films as a whole never worked for me. I wanted less twilight and more melodrama! Unapologetic garishness! Satanic pulp fantasias! I wanted Ingrid Pitt!

Then I came across The Seventh Victim. And the dark undercurrents flowing through it finally made it possible for me to slip into its waters and dream awake. At last! With its long noirish shadows, this tale of an innocent yet alluring damsel (played by the young Kim Hunter) who ventures to the dark city in search of her missing sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), the owner of a cosmetic factory in league with a group of banal yet menacing Satanists, is the horror film as written by Cornell Woolrich. No surprise, the Lewton team had adapted one of Woolrich’s novels, Black Alibi, to the screen in the guise of The Leopard Man. Both are splendid creations.

Entranced by The Seventh Victim, I made a point of going back and examining the other Lewton films that I could find VHS copies of. Over time, each film revealed more and more of its poverty row uniqueness to me, seducing me with its own minor key doom. The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People, and The Leopard Man were hard to come by for me, but not impossible. But there was one “forgotten” film that no one had access to.

The Ghost Ship was made in 1943, but because of a law suit brought about by two playwrights who claimed that Lewton had plagiarized a script they had submitted to RKO–a case that Lewton lost after getting the studio to fight it rather than settle–the film was pulled from distribution and shelved for decades. All but forgotten except for the knowledgeable connoisseurs of the genre, The Ghost Ship reappeared from the netherworld in the mid-1990s on laserdisc, but then disappeared again until 2005 when all of the Lewton horror films made their more affordable DVD arrival.

Perhaps because of The Ghost Ship‘s long absence, its artistic reputation seems less pronounced than its more famous infernal siblings. Unfortunate, since in many ways I find it one of the standout films of the group. Perhaps not the revelation that The Curse of the Cat People ended up being for me when I finally watched it last year, but there is plenty to savor in its straightforward compactness and ruthless examination of the misuse of authority. Captain Stone (Dix), who appears stern though fair-mined when Merriam first arrives on the ship, is anything but sane as we quickly learn. But this is no simple powermad leader, a man blind to his own hubris and other cliches. If only Captain Stone was blind to his own madness! This is a man in total control and shielded by a belief in the power of the law–the dictum of the sea which accords the captain of the ship to wield total authority over his crew. Captain Stone has a philosophy, a belief system. He has a will to power and the courage to resort to violence, if need be, to protect that power.

Considering that the film was produced during World War II, when the lengthening shadow of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan were at their apex, there’s no doubting what David Henderson Clarke’s screenplay was aiming for. But now, as the US led occupation of Iraq grinds on, the film’s metaphorical resonance shapeshifts out of its reserved seat and finds a new place at another blood-soaked table of history. It’s what all meaningful art attempts to achieve–a life outside of its time. Even poverty row horror films.

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

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Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.