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13 October, 2007

Why Not Today’s Horror Films?

I don’t believe that it’s a secret, certainly not to anyone familiar with my writing, that I much prefer the classics of the horror genre. For my money, the works of Karloff and Lugosi, Price and Chaney, Lee and Cushing, are far superior to 95% of what passes for horror these days. There are no more icons, no more masters of the art of terror, and I would much rather devote my limited movie-watching time to a film I truly love, rather than something that will be forgotten as soon as the DVD is back in it’s case.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very good, even excellent, Horror Films being made now. Though the early to mid-‘90’s were a virtual “dead zone” as far as horror was concerned, since 1996 we have been in a renaissance of sorts in the genre. Especially since 1999, we’ve been on the receiving end of some terrific Horror Films, both domestic and foreign, big-budget and Indie. This is my look at the past ten years of horror, with an admittedly subjective list of the Ten Best Horror Films since 1996. Not in terms of Box-Office, not according to the critics, just the ones that worked the best for me.

10.) URBAN LEGEND—(1998): While Wes Craven’s 1996 blockbuster SCREAM, scripted by Kevin Williamson, began the Teen-Horror cycle that would come to define Horror in the ‘90’s, (sad, isn’t it?) and spawned countless hordes of imitations, clones, rip-offs, and parodies, URBAN LEGEND, directed by Jamie Blanks, was easily the best of this curious, weak sub-genre, beating out it’s predecessor by a significant margin.

The basic premise for these films, and the dozens that were just like them, was implausibly simple: Take a group of young adults, say 18-22 years of age. Of course, they all have to be incredibly good-looking. Stick them in a normal setting, one in which they would feel comfortable, safe. Introduce a raving psychopath, intent on slaughtering them all, for reasons that will, rest assured, be revealed in the final reel. Toss in a generous helping of red herrings, season with enough sex and gore to guarantee a R-rating, and voila! You have written your first screenplay… congratulations.

URBAN LEGEND, to be sure, followed all of these conventions, with the usual 90210 cast full of beautiful people, a murderous psycho, ridiculous plot twists, and Rube Goldberg-ian Death scenes. But it also has a pretty decent story, great pacing, lots of action, great use of Urban Legends, (which are a favorite subject of mine…) and, of course, a scantily-clad Tara Reid. (Well it sure doesn’t hurt…)

But the best thing about URBAN LEGEND is that has a touch of originality. Just a touch; but compared to the rest of the SCREAM wannabees, a touch was just enough to set it apart from the crowd.

9.) BUBBA HO-TEP—(2002): Don Coscarelli may not be a household name among directors, but to Horror fans he’s the popular, if not prolific, man responsible for the PHANTASM series of cult films. Though I must admit that I’ve never seen the attraction in the PHANTASM movies, his most recent feature has me eagerly jumping on the bandwagon to proclaim him a great director.

For those of you unfamiliar with this overachieving gem of a film, the premise is simple, if admittedly bizarre: Elvis Presley did not die on the crapper in 1977; he’s now a resident in a rural Texas nursing home, along with an elderly black man who claims to be John F. Kennedy. They become aware of the fact that an ancient Egyptian mummy has also taken up residence, and is killing off the inhabitants by draining their life-force. Now, once you get beyond the impression that whoever dreamt this up (Coscarelli, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale…) was seriously in need of rehab, the movie hooks you with great performances from both Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis; then reels you in with a tremendously well-written story, filled with humor, and oddly touching.

Shot on a miniscule budget, it took word-of-mouth to get people to pay attention to this film, but it’s rapidly become a cult hit, and rightfully so. It’s hard for me to say when I’ve seen a film that made less sense, that I’ve enjoyed more.

8.) HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL—(1999): The only true remake on this list, (pay attention, Hollywood!) William Malone’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is one of the few remakes I’ve ever seen that I enjoy far more than the original.

Ok, I admit the ending is weak, as the movie just seems to run out of gas with about ten minutes left to go. Still, the preceding 80 minutes more than makes up for the let-down at the end with one of the goriest, slickest, sickest fright-fests Hollywood has turned out in the past several years.

It’s hard to quantify just why I like this movie so much. Chris Kattan, someone who usually impresses me as having the comedic talent of an IRS auditor on horse tranquilizers, just about steals the show with a manic performance that’s easily the best I’ve ever seen from him. Geoffrey Rush does a dead-on Vincent Price, in the role Price created in the original. The Special Effects are superb, at least until the final reel, and the opening sequence is fantastic.

While it might not be everyone’s definition of a great movie, it does for me the one thing I demand of a film, the one thing that, for me, makes or breaks a movie: It entertained the hell out of me. What more do I need?

7.) BELOW—(2002): Chances are you missed this one when it was in limited release in October, 2002. Don’t feel lonely; it grossed less than $600,000. But don’t let that keep you from tracking this one down, ASAP.

David Twohy does a skillful job blending two very disparate genres, the World War II submarine action-thriller and the good, old-fashioned ghost story, into one of the most atmospheric films I’ve seen in a very long time. The plot is nothing new, being a thin rehashing of the previous year’s THE OTHERS, only with torpedoes. However, BELOW has much better design and execution than the latter film, and the suspense is carried much deeper into the film than with THE OTHERS.

Granted, the story gets convoluted at times, and this is a movie to which attention must be paid, but it’s not that difficult to follow along, and the journey is worth it, believe me.

I think that, given a wider release, and more support from the studio, this would have been the equal or better of THE OTHERS in terms of Box-Office. For the Unimonster’s money, it IS a better movie.

6.) THE MUMMY—(1999): Yes, it’s a Stephen Sommers movie; no, it’s not really horror; and yes, it really is one of my favorite movies of all-time.

Though today Horror fans usually think of Sommers only in regards to the less than well-received VAN HELSING, there’s a reason Universal put him in charge of that film, entrusting him with the classic Monster franchise, and this movie is that reason.

Sommers’ re-invention of the Mummy Imhotep, first brought to the screen in 1932 by the Master of Horror, Boris Karloff, was a blockbuster success, pleasing the older fans while bring new ones into the mix. The perfect blend of Fantasy, Adventure, Comedy, and Horror, THE MUMMY worked on virtually every level.

The casting in this film is where the credit for the success lies. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are perfectly matched as Rick and Evelyn; especially Fraser. While he’s not very good at serious roles, comedically he’s terrific, with a great sense of timing and delivery. He’s also able to play the hero very convincingly, a combination that Hugh Jackman failed miserably at in VAN HELSING. And Rachel Weisz is simply perfect… gorgeous, humorous, just a touch of the exotic, as befits her character’s backstory… and she and Fraser have a definite on-screen chemistry.

The supporting cast in nearly as good as the leads, three in particular really standing out: John Hannah; Kevin J. O’Connor; and Omid Djalili. As Evie’s brother Jonathan, Rick’s old “acquaintance” Beni, and the Warden, respectively, they keep the humor, and the action, flowing smoothly when the leads are off-screen.

So okay, it ain’t Horror… who cares? It IS a thrill-ride of a movie, and never lets the viewer down. You can’t go wrong with that, now can you?

5.) DOG SOLDIERS—(2002): Werewolf Movies are hard to do; at least, they’re hard to do properly. For every great classic such as AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, there’s an even score of films such as HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. So I typically keep my expectations low when a new Lycanthrope appears on the scene. It was no different when I first started hearing good buzz about a Brit Import titled DOG SOLDIERS.

Directed by Neil Marshall, the film had a rather subdued debut here in the U.S., but word-of-mouth soon had monsterfans all over the internet singing its praises. I’ve seen very few films that managed to live up to their hype, but DOG SOLDIERS, quite frankly, just blew me away.

British directors in particular seem to have a talent for blending horror into more mainstream genres without overpowering the recipient genre. Just as SHAUN OF THE DEAD was a buddy comedy that just happened to include zombies, DOG SOLDIERS is a war movie, first and foremost; the only difference is that here, the enemy is a ravenous pack of werewolves. Other than that, the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen at depicting a small-unit combat action, and perhaps the best depiction of the close-knit camaraderie among the men of an infantry squad. Only SAVING PRIVATE RYAN approaches it in that regard.

In short, DOG SOLDIERS takes two of my favorite genres, and combines them seamlessly into one terrific movie. You’ve got to have this one if you’re a real werewolf fan.

4.) SIN CITY—(2005): One of the most visually beautiful and stunning films ever, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY is a virtual textbook on how to adapt a comic book to the big screen. Stylishly, starkly abstract; black and white with random splashes of color, it perfectly mirrors the graphic novels, also by Frank Miller, that inspired it.

Roundly criticized for the over-the-top violence and gore, as well as the general darkness of the themes, the film nonetheless needs both these elements to be as faithful to the books as it is. It’s nothing that should surprise long time fans of the series, and the cartoonish quality of it has a muting effect, with the blood looking like liquid silver on the screen. Overall, the effect is perfect, taking you into the world of the comics completely.

Of course, the best part of the film is the exceptional cast, and the exceptional performances that they turn in. Led by Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, the all-star cast really captures the heart of Miller’s characters, bringing them to life, and imbuing them, good or evil, with personalities you can’t help but be fascinated by. The main male characters, without exception, are scarred and damaged, either within or without, frequently both. The female leads, also without exception, are physically perfect, but just as inwardly wounded.

The combination of these elements produced one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the best Comic Book adaptations ever. This easily makes the list of the Top Ten of the Last ten.

3.) HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES—(2003): Those familiar with Rob Zombie’s unique brand of “death-metal” music weren’t terribly surprised that his debut effort as a feature-film director was a raunchy, gory, over-the-top homage to the “Grindhouse” classics of the 1970’s, such as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. What did surprise them was that it was so damn good.

Zombie, who fought for several years to make this film and keep it true to his vision, finally succeeded when Lion’s Gate Films got behind the endeavor, giving him the artistic freedom that was lacking when Universal had the project. He took that freedom and ran with it, pushing the envelope until the seams started to split. He also exploded the popular conception of just what a Horror Film was supposed to be, blasting away the dying shreds of the Kevin Williamson School of “Beautiful People” horror. This was raw, gut-wrenching, in-your-face terror, done as well as Hooper or Craven could have thirty years earlier.

I don’t know if Zombie intends to keep making movies, but judging from his first two efforts (his sequel to this movie, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, was released in 2005…) I hope so. He may not be the best director working in Horror today, but he’s managed to inject a healthy dose of gore into a genre that had become overly sanitized, Buffy-ized… by the likes of Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt. And for that, he deserves a huge thank you for Horror-Fans everywhere.

2.) THE SIXTH SENSE—(1999): The best Horror Film of a superb year for Horror Films, this was THE movie on everyone’s lips in 1999. Everyone who had seen it was busy telling their friends who hadn’t that they’d “…never guess the ending”, and, for the most part, they were right.

This was the breakthrough film for M. Night Shyamalan, who received Oscar nominations for both the Screenplay and Direction. And though it may be hard to believe now, this movie was a definite sleeper, with only %9.1 of its total Gross coming in its opening weekend. Normally, a film will make up to %35-40 in that three-day period. A great story made this film a hit, but word-of-mouth kept people streaming into theaters to see it, and made it a blockbuster.

There are so many reasons to love this movie… it proved that Bruce Willis actually could act; it showed that intelligence and horror weren’t mutually exclusive; it had an ending that was genuinely surprising, not just momentarily shocking; and it made a star out of Haley Joel Os—on second thought, strike that last. It’s still the best Horror Film of the 1990’s, and easily makes it to number two on this list.

1.) SHAUN OF THE DEAD—(2004): Horror and comedy just seem to blend perfectly together, like Peanut Butter and Chocolate, Scotch and Soda, Ben Affleck and Crappy Movies. Perhaps it’s a subconscious reaction to fright, an impulse that makes us want to laugh in the face of our fears. Maybe it’s just that we love both genres, and a combination of the two doubly so. Whatever it is, some of my favorite Horror Films are also Comedies, and Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD is at the top of the list.

As I mentioned earlier, British directors do seem to have a talent for blending unrelated genres into a pleasing whole, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD is perhaps the best example of this. I’ve described this movie in an earlier CreatureScape article as a romantic comedy about a “…young man, his girlfriend, and his best mate—that happens to include zombies.” I can’t think of a better way to put it. This is only tangentially a Horror Film; the true thrust of the film is how Shaun, a notorious slacker who’s finally managed to piss off his long-suffering girlfriend to the point where she dumps him, is going to convince her that he really can make a commitment, without going to the extreme of losing his best friend Ed. Oh, did I mention that he’d have to accomplish all this while dealing with hordes of re-animated, flesh-eating corpses?

This is a film that you simply can’t take in in one viewing, so richly is it layered with references, recalls, and in-jokes. But there’s so much more to it than simply being a spoof of the Romero Dead trilogy. It’s simply the best of the past ten years.

But don’t take my word for it… watch it for yourself. See if you don’t think it’s a slice of “fried gold.”

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