Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I had really hoped I’d had time to address some thoughts I had on horror movies in time for Halloween, but the hour of the wolf grows nigh and I’m going to have to settle for providing you with links that will slake your blood thirst for great reading material about this most resilient and adaptable of genres. Jonathan Lapper’s Cinema Styles has really come into its own as an excellent read over the past year, and Jonathan spent the last month luxuriating in the extremities and excitement of the horror genre. Similarly, Bill R. recently launched a blog entitled The Kind of Face You Hate (it’s Dr. Mabuse’s, not Bill’s), the attendance to which hopefully accounts for his recently scaled-down appearance in the comments columns here. (My lack of posts might have something to do with it too.) It’s been worth Bill’s efforts, though—his blog has quickly become one of the best, and at the risk of being too reductive about such an ambitious project, he spent the entirety of October discussing the vast array of horror literature, much of which you don’t know about (I didn’t either). Finally, if getting a great overview of the entirety of the blogosphere as it engaged with the horror genre this past month is your cup of brew, then please check out Green Cine Daily’s multi-post “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” series, spread out over the course of a very busy Halloween month for this most excellent of websites.

My own Halloween movie fun ran far more on the trick-ish than the treat-ish side. Things began inauspiciously enough with Alexandre Aja’s skittish, cluttered Mirrors (2008), which misinterprets horror as a constant state of jittery camera movement, splintered editing (no doubt justified by the visual motif of all those broken mirrors), and sequences of Kiefer Sutherland glowering and baring a flashlight through darkened halls, all the better to orchestrate a plethora of cheap “boo” gags and distract from the low-rent, Shining-rip-off storyline. Oh, and Amy Smart gets a truly gruesome death scene in a bathtub in which her jaw is broken and hyper-extended by the unseen ghoulies hiding out in her medicine cabinet mirror. (Aja uses some of the movie’s longest, most loving takes here.) Movies like this and the wretched The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008), which lifts its plot (but not its lack of energy) from formulaic, and much better, ABC TV Movies of the Week like The Initiation of Sarah, are made by people who betray not a lick of reverence for or facility with the horror genre and its possibilities, its power, its fun.

Then I revisited John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1988), a pseudo-religious post-Exorcist thriller-- Argento by way of Carpenter touchstone Howard Hawks-- in which a group of no-nonsense physicists (headed by no- nonsense TV actor Jameson Parker) lock themselves in a church basement to do battle with (and get zombified one-by-one by) a whirling Day-Glo substance in a jar that just might be Satan himself. Yes, it’s as dumb as it sounds, made even more tedious by Carpenter’s deadpan directorial torpor and patented matter-of-fact approach to the most absurd material—the movie plays like a greatest-hits album for a director whose best tricks weren’t all that good to begin with. Alice Cooper is the leader of a group of street people turned into shuffling flesh-eaters in the presence of the Day-Glo jar, and the singer’s perpetual glower is played entirely straight, which would be fine if anything in the movie was remotely scary. The movie’s only juice is provided by Donald Pleasance as a priest saddled with the script’s most portentous expository dialogue—it’s the exact same performance he delivered in Halloween, only wearing a clerical collar.

I want to spend more time than I have here extolling the virtues of the mournful and visually brilliant Swedish import Let the Right One In, which was the highlight of my cinematic Halloween adventures. I vow to write more about this movie in the very near future. But I will say that, along with The X-Files: I Want to Believe earlier this year, the movie makes an excellent case, in a completely different context, for the atmospheric dread of winter that has gone, to my mind anyway, greatly underexplored in modern horror films. Director Tomas Alfredson has an uncanny instinct for the chilling effect of quiet and he never pushes his individual sequences, frightening as they are, into excess. This atmospheric tale of a spectral young boy who is befriended by an equally mysterious girl apparently his own age—a girl who doesn’t seem to eat and is strangely unaffected by the incessant cold—turns what could be the merely gruesome into a evocative, visually rich fairy tale which is as much a haunting tale of finding one’s true soul mate as it is one of a quiet town whose adults fall prey to a 12-year-old vampire. Let the Right One In put me in mind of the somber fairy tale atmospherics of Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch), a movie in thrall to the interior fantasy world of the similarly adrift young girl at the center of its story. I finished off Halloween weekend with Lewton, Wise and von Fritsch’s beautiful movie, and combined with Let the Right One In (a strong contender for movie of the year) it proved the most perfect corrective for the misapplied technology that is the only possible justification for a folly like Mirrors. (Prince of Darkness, on the other hand, seems merely harmless and dated.)

I’m not sure if I share Noah Forrest’s sense of despair over the condition of the horror film in general—it seems like there’s always someone like a Tomas Alfredson to breathe new life into wineskins that would seem, after a century of cinematic storytelling, to be exhausted. But seeing too much crap like Mirrors and Saw 5 can make you start to believe that the people who control the production of modern horror movies are the ones least qualified to delineate precisely what makes a good one. (Does Alexandre Aja really believe he made a scary movie when he looks in his own Mirrors, or is he just as cynical and manipulative as his film suggests?) That’s why I’m excited by what I’ve heard about the upcoming Splinter, and why I look forward to what my friend Don Mancini, as knowledgeable and talented a caretaker as any horror movie could have, will do with his upcoming projects, including his own remake of Child’s Play. These are the kinds of movies that tend to respect horror’s past and promise to take it in new and unexpected directions-- projects that true horror aficionados can’t help but get excited about.


bill r. said...

Thanks for the link, Dennis, as well as for the very kind words! And I'm sorry I haven't been commenting more lately, but at the rate you're suddenly posting, I'll be around a lot more.

I know that Prince of Darkness has a lot wrong with it, but there are moments and images and ideas (like the "Anti-God") that I just find so interesting, and I can't bring myself to write it off. It's the kind of not-very-good movie that really kind of pisses me off for not being better, because it could have and should have been. But I still like it anyway.

I really hope Let the Right One In plays near me; I'm dying to see it. I recently found out that it's based on a novel, however, which could very well be In Stores Now, so if the film doesn't open I may just take that route until the DVD is released.

And Curse of the Cat People is just terrific. The End.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I know I commented on this post. I know I did. But now I don't see it. Maybe it didn't go through and I never noticed. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks, now belatedly, for such kind words and the link. You're still the standard to which we all aspire.