By now, you’ve been waiting way too long to read the conclusion to the first part of this blog. I’ve spent a lot of time since the previous entry really thinking about the last six I wanted to include to round out this series and think I’ve selected quite a few gems that will please even the most seasoned horror fan.
So let’s talk shlock (again)!
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Street of Crocodiles is a 21 minute, stop-motion animation short film directed by the Brothers Quay that was released in 1986. It is a loose adaptation of a short story by Bruno Schulz and features an amazing soundtrack done by Leszek Jankowski. While not a traditional horror movie, I do think that the film’s imagery is about as horrific as it gets and definitely deserves a place on this list. The short is not widely available on most of the standard streaming outlets and once uploaded is often taken down to copyright issues. If owning things to avoid the hassle of hunting down constantly disappearing YouTube links, there is an incredibly affordable Brothers Quay collection, Phantom Museums: The Short Films of the Brothers Quay, that contains the short and is definitely worth the investment. At the time of this writing, the link I’ve provided at the end of this entry should have the short in its entirety. Don’t skip this one. Watch it after finishing this post!
Rather than provide my own analysis of the plot on this one, I’ve decided to copy and paste what was provided on Wikipedia. I wouldn’t normally do this but Street of Crocodiles has a rather ambiguous plot that is mostly left up to the viewer to piece together after multiple viewings. I’ve read numerous plot descriptions on the internet before deciding that this is the most fitting simply due to it providing only vague details that clue you into the events that happen in the short rather than explicitly telling you each action that takes place.
Wikipedia’s plot description: “A man closes up a lecture hall; he reaches into a box and snips the string holding a gaunt puppet. Released, the puppet warily explores the darkened rooms about him. The desolate ambience and haunting musical score are meant to convey a sense of isolation and futility. As the short continues, the mute protagonist explores a realm of what are described by the director as ‘mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures’. As the protagonist chooses to join this world, the camera slowly reveals how unfulfilling the surroundings actually are.”
Street of Crocodiles is easily my favorite animated short film. Its hard not to see the influence it had on music directors such as Mark Romanek (who claims that Street of Crocodiles was the inspiration for the Nine Inch Nails video for “Closer”), Fred Stuhr (who directed the Tool video for “Sober”), and Adam Jones (guitarist for Tool who directed the video for “Prison Sex”). Terry Gilliam, one of my favorite directors, claims that it is one of the best animated shorts he has ever soon.
I personally came across this short when a friend of mine brought over the now out of print Kino released The Brothers Quay Collection: Ten Astonishing Short Films 1984-1993 DVD in high school. He found out that I was really into more subversive movies and suggested that I borrow this collection and let him know what I thought. Quite simply, I was blown away and soon consumed everything The Brothers Quay had to offer. Once I ran out of things to watch by the directors, I moved on to watching short films by surrealist Czech filmmakers such as Jan Švankmajer (who the Brothers Quay claimed influence) and Jiří Barta. To address the former, I thought about including Švankmajer’s Alice as a selection on this but ultimately decided that it is far to difficult to find a copy and wanted to try and make these lists a little more accessible. If you like what you see by the Brothers Quay, you need to experience Švankmajer’s short films such as Darkness/Light/Darkness (1989), Jabberwocky (1971), and Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).
Suspiria is an Italian horror movie directed by famed horror director, Dario Argento. It was co-written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi and stars Jessica Harper. It is considered the first in a trilogy of supernatural horror films that Argento dubbed “The Three Mothers” which was followed by Inferno (1980), and Mother of Tears (2007). The film was one of Argento’s most successful films and has been praised for its use of vibrant colors, stylistic flair, cinematography, and terrifying score.
The score was composed by progressive rock band, Goblin, and holds the distinction of being, quite possibly, my favorite horror movie score of all time. In fact, Zombi, a progressive rock duo known for their instrumental synth based music that would fit in any horror film of the 1970s, is heavily influenced by Goblin and is among my favorite bands. For a taste of Goblin’s excellent score, check our Halloween Playlist (currently at track 53). Lastly, a remake of the film was announced in 2013, was cancelled, and is now back in pre-production. I’m not sure how I feel about this but will probably give it a shot when it comes out.
Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), is an American ballet student who enrolls in a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg. On the night of Suzy’s arrival, a student who was recently expelled is stabbed, smothered, and hanged by a mysterious stranger at a friend’s house. Her body is sent through the glass ceiling and her friend is impaled by falling glass and metal as she helplessly watched her dead friend fall from the ceiling (screenshot above). The next morning, Suzy meets her instructors and fellow students and, after a strange encounter with the academy’s cook, Suzy faints during a lesson. She awakens to discover that she has been moved to her dormitory room against her wishes and that she needs to be medicated with a daily glass of wine. As the students prepare for dinner, hundreds of maggots fall from the ceiling due rotten food in the attic. The students sleep in the gymnasium after the incident and hear the distinctive snore of the academy’s director.
The next day, the school’s blind piano player is murdered by his dog after an incident earlier in the day where the dog bites a fellow teacher. Suzy’s friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) is also murdered after she is chased by an unseen pursuer through the academy. Sarah tried to escape through a window in a room but falls into a pit of razor wire (screenshot below). She struggles for survival until a black-gloved hand of a dark figure slits her throat. The next morning, Suzy is informed that Sarah’s has left the academy. Growing suspicious, Suzy meets with a psychologist, that was a friend of Sarah’s, who believes that the academy was founded by witches. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens next.
This may have been the first horror movie I saw that made me realize that you can hide a lot of beauty in horror. The film is so incredibly pretty to look at. While capturing screenshots from the movie, I kept pausing the movie to show Aly just how beautiful it looks and telling her how very few horror films have visually impressed me as much as Suspiria (Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak (2015), is another looker of a film). The visuals coupled with the sonically singular soundtrack have made it a film I come back to at least once a year. Its a great one to show to people who are a bit snooty with their choice in horror movies or to those that don’t really appreciate the genre. The only glaring drawback to the movie is that, if I’m being totally honest, the plot is kind of hard to follow and is difficult to understand unless you have had multiple viewings of the movie. Additionally, it feels like the last third of the movie was rushed for some reason. Regardless, I truly do think that Suspiria is a horror masterpiece and should be seen by all. If you like this one and want to see more Dario Argento movies, I highly recommend Opera (1987), Tenebrae (1982), and Deep Red (1975).
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A Tale of Two Sisters is a South Korean psychological horror-drama that was written and directed by Kim Jee-woon (who also directed the amazing I Saw the Devil (2010)) and was inspired by a Joseon Dynasty folktale entitled “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon”. It is the highest grossing Korean horror film and was the very first Korean horror movie to be shown in theaters in the US. In 2009, there was an American remake that was titled The Uninvited. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the remake so I can’t comment on whether it is true to the original. However, if you’ve seen the remake, you should probably seek this one out and watch it too. Since this one is relatively hard to find since it is not streaming on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon video, I will let you know that it periodically pops up on YouTube. I won’t link there but trust you know how to find it.
The film opens in a mental institution where a young girl named Su-mi is being treated. The doctor wants her to open up about how she got there and the film cuts to a flashback of her younger sister, Su-yeon, her father, and herself at her family’s secluded estate. Things are tense in the house and you get the sense that the two sisters are not very fond of their stepmother. That night, Su-yeon suffers from frightening visions and Su-mi dreams of a ghost being in her room. When their uncle and his wife arrive for a visit, the uncle’s wife sees a badly decomposed girl under the sink. The stepmother also sees the girl and claims that bizarre things have been happening in the house and blames them on Su-mi. Later, the stepmother finds one of her birds dead in its cage. Believing that it was Su-yeon, she goes into her room and discovers mutilated photos of her and another dead bird. She throws Su-yeon in a closet and refuses to let her out until she apologizes. The father blames Su-mi for the family trouble and Su-mi blames the stepmother for abusing Su-yeon. The father tells Su-mi that her sister is dead but she refuses to believe him. The next morning, the stepmother is seen dragging a large bloody bag through the house which Su-mi believes contains her sister. I’ll leave the rest for you to experience yourself.
I had decided early on that I should probably include an Asian horror film on this list. I had thought about including The Host (2006), Marebito (2004), Three Extremes (2004) [side note: this is a must see!], Strange Circus (2005), or Audition (1999) but ultimately decided on A Tale of Two Sisters due to it being a strangely overlooked brilliant movie. In fact, I had the entirety of this portion of this blog written about Audition but decided that, while I love the director, Takashi Miike, I think that Audition is one of his weakest movies and is one of those movies you watch once, remember it being horrific, but never revisit it again. Also, I truly think that 85% of Audition is tedium until the final, unforgettable payoff.
Ever since I watched A Tale of Two Sisters, I seem to remember bits and pieces that slowly come back to me over time and am overwhelmed with this incredible desire to watch it again. But here’s the sad truth, I’ve only watched it once and am now using this blog entry as an excuse to watch it again. I remember being completely blown away by Ji-woon Kim’s attention to detail and how it seemed like everything on the screen had some significance to the plot. The plot unfolds delicately and gets increasingly more disturbing. I wish I could offer more beyond that but, as I said, it has been some time since I’ve seen it and really need to watch it again soon. So who wants to come over and watch this movie with me sometime?
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods is a horror comedy directed by Drew Goddard that was written by Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly fame, and the director. Two two had previously worked together on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and wrote the script in just three days, as a satire on torture porn horror films and in an effort to breathe new life into the slasher film. It stars Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, and Chris Hemsworth. When the movie was released, it was very well received by the critics and was frequently featured on best of lists at the end of the year. As a word of warning for those that haven’t seen it, it is best viewed knowing that the movie is satirical. If you take it at face value, you may be wondering why it feels so tongue and cheek and the smugness of the film may rub you the wrong way.
Five American college students are spending the weekend in a deserted cabin in the forest and, unbeknownst to them, they are a part of a secret underground facility’s experiment for the weekend that is studying them by intoxicating them with psychotropic drugs that increase libido and decrease rational thought. The facility’s employees are taking bets on what kind monster will attack the teenagers while also providing background information on past experiments through the use of storytelling. The students find a diary, recite ancient incantations that resurrect a zombified family that lived in the house, and are attacked by the family. One of the students, the stoner of the group, discovers surveillance equipment during the attack and begins to question the what is actually happening to the group. One by one, the students are picked off by the zombie family or through accidental death. When the what appears to be the last survivor perishes, the facility employees begin celebrating before realizing that the stoner has survived. He rescues one of the members of the group and takes her to a hidden elevator in the woods that leads them into the facility. Here they discover imprisoned zombies, a werewolf, merman, a unicorn, a giant snake, wraiths, and several other monster. What happens next, quite frankly, rules. The movie starts with your basic horror movie plot and really turns it on its head. Go watch it!
Aly and I rarely get to the theater and, often when we go, I let Aly pick the movie we are going to see. I have to admit, I knew nothing about The Cabin in the Woods when we went to go and see it and had virtually no expectations. Boy, did I have my mind blown! At first, I was really put off by the goofy introduction but quickly changed my mind when I saw that Joss Whedon had written it. While I don’t consider myself a die-hard Whedon fan (for the record, I think Firefly is a touch overrated), I do really like most of what he has put out there and have come to realize why he has so many devoted fans. Before talking about the movie, I wanted to mention that if you haven’t seen Whedon’s Dollhouse, you need to get on that.
The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter to horror fans. Even those that aren’t a fan of the genre, should find something here that will make you appreciate horror films. It wears its influences on its sleeve and doesn’t feel derivative. In fact, the whole movie feels so fresh that it has made me wonder how most modern horror films have done it so wrong for so long. It bends genres, moves flawlessly in and out of horror movie tropes, is very self aware, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It even has a scene towards the end of the movie where horror fans can try spotting cameos of their favorite horror villains, and even has some horror video game references for those that have a sharp eye for spotting such details. In short, it is the geeky horror film you’ve been wanting since the glory days of horror in the late 80s and 90s and only gets better with repeated viewings.
Hellraiser is a British horror franchise that was originally written and directed by Clive Barker as an adaptation of his novella, The Hellbound Heart. The soundtrack was done by Christopher Young and is one of my favorite horror movie soundtracks and is worth listening to on its own. The original film stars Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, and Doug Bradley. When originally released, the movie was given an X rating by the MPAA and Barker was forced to cut several scenes from the movie in order to give it an R rating. He claims that the MPAA had less problems with the violence but were more concerned with the erotic scenes in the movie. His quotes are too good not to share. Here’s a entry from film’s Wikipedia page that contain the quotes:
“Well, we did have a slight problem with the eroticism. I shot a much hotter flashback sequence than they would allow us to cut in…. Mine was more explicit and less violent. They wanted to substitute one kind of undertow for another. I had a much more explicit sexual encounter between Frank and Julia, but they said no, let’s take out the sodomy and put in the flick knife.”
Barker also said on the commentary for the movie that seduction scene between Julia and Frank was, initially, a lot more explicit; “We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!”
Ratings and censorship aside, Hellraiser deserves a place on every great horror film list and is a must see for anyone who hasn’t seen it. So on to the plot!
Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and his second wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into his childhood home where, unbeknownst to Larry, his brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), has been killed in the attic by a mysterious puzzle box. Larry is attempting to repair his strained relationship with his wife, who had an affair with Frank shortly after marrying Larry. When Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail during the moving process, his blood spills on the attic floor where his brother was killed. The blood resurrects Frank as a skinless, almost lifeless, version of his former self. Julia finds Frank in the attic and, still in love with him, she agrees to harvest blood for him so that he can be fully restored and they can run away together. Julia begins the process of picking up men in bars, bringing them back to the house, and killing them in the attic where Frank feeds on their flesh which slowly restores his body. Suspicious of her stepmother, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) follows her into the attic after Julia picks up another man for Frank’s feeding and witnesses Frank feeding on the corpse of Julia’s latest victim. You need to see the rest to see how it plays out.
I normally refrain from putting original quotes from film reviewers but, when it was released, Roger Ebert called it a “bankruptcy of imagination”. While I usually agree with Ebert’s opinion, I truly feel like he missed the mark on this one. Years ago, I would hang out with friends and watch this movie repeatedly. It turns out that, while most of my friend were horror movie fans, many of them hadn’t seen this movie. We would usually watch it once and then a second time so that we could all talk over it and shed some light on some of the stylistic choices that Barker chose for the movie. Having watched it just recently, I still find it so incredibly hilarious that the flashback where Julia is reminiscing about Frank is filmed in this over-the-top soap opera way that’s complete with a jarringly light-hearted score when compared to the rest of the film. It almost feels like satire and makes you wonder how accurate Julia’s memory of the event really is and makes you really question Frank’s motives. Was he really in love with her or is he using her unhappy marriage to his advantage?
Also, the scene where Frank is resurrected is an achievement in special effects that rival some of the best I’ve ever seen and is textbook for why I still consider CGI effects to be sorely lacking in the realism department. I won’t go on too much about this movie purely because, second only to the next film on this list, it is the film I’ve watched far more often than any other between the two parts of this series and I have quite a bit to say about it. Instead, I want to encourage you to watch it, form your own opinions, and talk to me about why this is the perfect movie to recommend to those that recently finished 50 Shades of Grey and how it blows those other slasher movies totally out of the water.
A note about its sequels: The original movie is a masterpiece and its first sequel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) is, in my humble opinion, almost just as good. From there, like most horror movie franchises, the quality is very hit or miss and most of them are worth skipping. Where the first and second film had less to do with the Cenobites, the hellish creatures that live inside the puzzle box, and more to do with the tortured humans that were being pursued by the monsters, the sequels feel more like most of the slasher films from the 80s and 90s where big bad monsters pick off a group of victims until the last one remains standing. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) is about a new reporter that is trying to send Pinhead (Cenobite 1 to purists), leader of the Cenobites, back to hell and has a group of humans turn into Cenobites based on the manner of their death. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) takes place in the future and in space and tries to explain away mystique surrounding the origin of Pinhead.
But Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) is an absolutely fantastic sequel that deserves as much attention at the original. Rather than monsters being the focus, Inferno goes back to the original film’s roots and is more about the monstrosities of humans and how we are all corrupted our desires. Its plot is centered around a corrupt cop who is chasing a serial killer known as “The Engineer”. The movie is probably a closer adaptation to the original novella than even Barker’s first film and really brings to light that humans are the greatest evil of all. I haven’t seen any of the sequels past this one but have plans to watch them soon based on the recommendation of a friend who tells me that Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) is worth watching.
Eraserhead is a surrealist body horror film written and directed by David Lynch. It was Lynch’s first film and it was eventually financed by the American Film Institute. It is considered a horrifying cult classic that is known for its surreal imagery, haunting minimalist score, and its incredible influence it has had on the film industry. While Lynch was working on the Elephant Man (1980) (another movie you have to see), he met Stanley Kubrick who revealed to Lynch that Eraserhead was his favorite film of all time. In fact, Kubrick screened Eraserhead to the cast and crew of The Shining (1980) in an effort to “put them in the mood” so that they were aware of the type of film he was trying to make. It also went on to influence Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) (a film I almost put on this list) and surrealist H. R. Giger’s body of work. In short, the film is incredibly important to a lot of work that came after it was made.
Rather than do the usual plot description I’ve previously provided on all of the other horror movies, I’ve decided to provide you the simplified version that will only give you a taste of what happens in the movie. Besides, I don’t really think I could provide a chronological plot description that would do the film any justice. Eraserhead tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who has to care for for his deformed child in a desolate, industrial landscape after his wife leaves him and often retreats into dreams and fantasies in order to escape his harsh realty.
Those that know me were probably wondering if this movie would make an appearance on this list. The reason I’ve put this off until the very last entry is that, out of all of the movies that are on this list, this is my absolute favorite. While not my favorite David Lynch film (if I had to pick one it would probably be Mulholland Dr), this movie is, quite possibly, the scariest movie I’ve ever seen both visually and for its deeper, more frightening message. I’m often asked for my interpretation of Eraserhead’s incredibly obtuse plot and love witnessing the drop in someone’s facial expression when I reveal that its message is way more simplistic than Lynch wants you to believe.
In short, this movie is about the fear of sex and becoming a parent. David J. Skal, in his book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, offers the following quote that perfectly analyses the film’s unusual plot: “human reproduction [is] a desolate freak show, an occupation fit only for the damned”. In the context of Lynch’s life, this film was made shortly after his first divorce and after living for five years in Philadelphia in an area of filled with crime. Lynch had a nine year old daughter at the time and was, most likely, worried about being able to care for her. I didn’t know this until I wrote this but his daughter was born with clubbed feet which may have had some influence on why the baby was so deformed. The expressions of his fear in this film was a leap of faith and almost didn’t get made due to its difficulty in being funded. In fact, I believe that it took almost four years to finally complete. There were probably more than a few times where Lynch worried that this huge artistic endeavor would never be made and that he should give up on his dream of being a film director and get a “real” job so that he could better provide for his family. Its a very human plot in one of the most surreal films ever made and its fear is real and more tangible than most other horror movies I’ve seen.
And boy does this fear translates well to the screen. Its first image is one of conception where The Man in the Planet pulls a level which releases a sperm-like creature from Henry’s mouth. It could be said that the opening shot is symbolic of Henry impregnating his wife, Mary, and that the planet is a giant ovum. The sperm creatures from this opening shot also make regular appearances in the film and are always followed by acts of violence. Even Henry’s deformed child looks almost sperm-like. When Henry fantasizes about The Lady in the Radiator, the creatures begin falling from the heavens. The Lady in the Radiator meets Henry’s gaze before stomping violently on the creatures. Some speculate that the Lady may be Henry’s subconscious telling him that it is okay to kill his child and that film’s final shot is one where she tells him that he has made the right choice. Henry is weak to his situation and often simply complies to the suggestion of those around him. He is unsure of himself and perpetually worried of making the wrong choices. When by himself, he often turns to fantasy to escape the harsh reality of family life where, quite literally, everything else around him disappears and only his wife and deformed child give his life its empty meaning. The harsh, brutal, and barren landscape that Henry lives in is devoid of life. He is truly alone in the world outside of the familial life he has created for himself.
This series has been a blast for me to write. I’ve never written anything like this before and now feel way more comfortable doing more in this vein. It was difficult to only select 13 movies for this list so I wanted to leave you with a few others you should check out that I didn’t link in earlier parts of this blog. Its a short list and all the titles link to the trailers which you’ll find below:
- Blair Witch Project (1999)
- The Tenant (1976)
- Hour of the Wolf (1968)
- High Tension (2003)
- Wolf Creek (2005)
- Freaks (1932)
- Ginger Snaps (2000)
- May (2002)
- Dust Devil (1992)
- Devil’s Backbone (2001)
- Day of the Dead (1985)
- Cemetery Man (1994)
- Excorcist III (1990)
- American Mary (2013)
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Until next year!