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06 October, 2007

Movies With No Name: Ten “Diamonds in the Rough” that are Worth the Effort to Track Down

Everyone has their favorite Horror Films, and I’m certainly no exception. I have my favorite Vampire films, my favorite Giant Bug movies, my favorite Euro-Horrors… well, you name the Horror or Sci-Fi genre, and I’ll have a list of favorites ready for you. Most of you, I’m sure, have similar lists of your own.

One of my favorite categories of film, however, is the small-studio, low-budget, or independent productions so common to genre films. Most modern, major-studio Horror & Sci-Fi films are either remakes or rip-offs of far superior films of the past… but these Direct-to-Video gems, with much less to lose, are much more willing to gamble.

While I can understand the major Hollywood studios being reluctant to take too large a gamble on something novel or experimental, it’s taken to Draconian extremes these days. To choose not to risk millions on a high-art concept that might open in five theaters nationwide I can understand, but there’s nothing about these movies that’s artsy or experimental. It’s gotten to the point that whenever a Hollywood production shows any sign of intelligence or originality, eight men in suits come running out to stomp it to death.

But where do you find good movies that, simply for lack of funding or publicity, never got a theatrical release, or even a mention in the press?

That was a question I was forced to ponder recently, when a friend interested in building a library of Horror Films asked for my list of genuinely good Horror Films that are out of the ordinary, something different from the run of the mill FRIDAY THE 13th, PART WHO-GIVES-A-DAMN. There are such movies out there, I replied… you simply have to search for them. This is the list I gave him, and now share with you.

I will admit that it’s a short list, but here are ten recent movies that, while you may not have heard of them before, should definitely be on your must-have list.

1.) SHAUN OF THE DEAD—2004: The more that I watch this movie, (and that’s pretty often…) the more convinced I become that this is the best Horror Film, comic elements notwithstanding, of the new millennium. The manic brain-child of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, this Brit import must be seen to be believed… part buddy movie, part romantic comedy, and a whole lotta kick-ass zombie action. I’ve often stated that the one thing a movie must do is entertain me, and no modern film does that as well as SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

2.) DOG SOLDIERS—2002: Diametrically opposed in tone to SHAUN…, DOG SOLDIERS is one of the three best werewolf films of all-time, and the best since 1981’s AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Grittingly realistic, violently unrelenting, this is first and foremost a war movie, a dynamic portrayal of a squad of British soldiers, trapped behind enemy lines. In this case however, the enemy happens to be a family of werewolves in the highlands of Scotland. Directed by Neil Marshall, this is another import that only serves to illustrate how hidebound and unimaginative Hollywood is now.

3.) MONSTER MAN—2003: One of the more common themes in the past few years has been the “Road Trip to Hell” film, such as JEEPERS CREEPERS or JOY RIDE. While Michael Davis’ MONSTER MAN is certainly derivative of these, it does possess some unique qualities that help it to stand out from the pack… a generous helping of humor, over-the-top gore, and just enough gratuitous sex and violence to keep it moving. It was released by Lion’s Gate, who has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to handle properties no one else will touch, such as Rob Zombie’s excellent HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.

4.) OPEN WATER—2003: Another Lion’s Gate release, and the best shark movie since JAWS. Director Chris Kentis, an avid Scuba diver, shot this film on a budget of $130,000; he later sold it to Lion’s Gate for $2.5 million. Based on a true event, this story of two divers accidentally left behind by their charter boat may not fit everyone’s definition of a “Horror Film.” I don’t know… it sure as hell scared me.

5.) VENOM—2005: Every so often I pick up a DVD that I really don’t expect much out of, simply because it’s the only one on the shelf that I don’t have. Usually I wind up with something the likes of DARKNESS FALLS or CONSTANTINE, but every once in a while I’m pleasantly surprised. Once in a very great while, I’m very pleasantly surprised. That’s what happened when I first watched VENOM. Directed by Jim Gillespie, who did I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, this starts out like most teen horror films, but injects an element of the supernatural into the mix that elevates the film above the standard high-school slasher pic. It received little or no publicity, which is a shame… more people should see this one.

6.) GIN GWAI ~aka~ JIAN GUI; SEEING GHOSTS; THE EYE—2002: Traditional Ghost or Haunted House films are difficult to do properly, but Asian filmmakers seem to have found the key to producing high-quality movies in this genre, usually on budgets that would make a Hollywood director shed tears. RINGU, JU-ON, KAÏRO… all were very well done, very successful films, all of which inspired the inevitable Hollywood remake. Another terrific Asian import is the Pang Brothers GIN GWAI, or THE EYE, a tightly plotted story of a blind woman, given sight through a corneal transplant, who doesn’t realize that not everyone sees things as she now does. It was recently announced that Tom Cruise planned a remake starring Renee Zellweger. While that may no longer be in the works after Cruise’s much-publicized break-up with Paramount, don’t take that chance! See the original before Cruise does to it what he helped do to WAR OF THE WORLDS.

7.) BUBBA HO-TEP—2002: There are some movies that toss conventional logic aside and dive headfirst into realms once explored only by those who’ve consumed vast quantities of controlled substances. Don Coscarelli’s BUBBA HO-TEP is such a movie. The premise is simple enough, though ludicrous as well: Elvis, the King, the Pelvis, did not die on the crapper in 1978. He traded places with an Elvis impersonator, and disappeared into obscurity. Now, thirty-odd years later, he’s a tired old man in a Texas nursing home, where his best friend is an elderly black man who believes that he’s John F. Kennedy. All of this would be surreal enough… but for the Ancient Egyptian mummy concealed on the grounds, eking out a meager existence by consuming the souls of the nursing home residents. This sets up an epic battle between a dying King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a former “President”, and an undead thief of souls. It also describes one of the most original and entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.

8.) CUBE—1997: A visually unique and stunning Canadian production, Vincenzo Natali’s CUBE is claustrophobic cinema in the extreme, with the entire film taking place inside a 14’ cube. Seven people find themselves trapped within this cube; each face of which connects to an identical cube. It becomes obvious that they are imprisoned for some reason in a massive structure constructed of these cubes, as they travel from cube to cube seeking escape. It can be a challenging film to watch, and if you like your movies to have definite resolution then you might want to pass; there is no answer offered at the conclusion. Still, it is a movie that’s worth watching, if only for the experience.

9.) THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA—2001: Looking like a lost “classic” from the notorious Ed Wood or Bert I. Gordon, this homage to the Alien Invader films of the 1950’s from director Larry Blamire has is weak moments, but they’re mostly intentional as Blamire and a talented cast recreate what we love about those B-Movie monster invasions, both good and bad. Not a parody so much as it is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to those cheesy drive-in pictures of yesteryear, it makes for a very pleasant reminder of those days when you’re in a nostalgic frame of mind.

10.) SESSION 9—2001: Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9 is reminiscent of THE SHINING in several ways, most notably the sense of isolation and menace that overhangs the film thanks to the superb location shooting. Filmed in the former Danvers State Lunatic Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, the location is very much a part of the film, nearly overshadowing the excellent cast led by David Caruso. It is slow to develop, and I must say that I was a bit disappointed by the ending, but it’s still one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.

There’s the list. As I said, it’s not a long one, and it may not be easy to track down every film on it. But Hollywood really needs go to school on these movies and ones like them… each is far more satisfying than the last five Big-Budget remakes I’ve seen combined.

Then again, they’d probably just remake them.

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