In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure. Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar, with his blond Prince Valiant haircut, falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Linda Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.
Hollywood’s 2010 version carries the less confusing title Let Me In, and fans of the original that fear the worst can rest easy. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) managed to retain the spirit of the source material, while finding ways to leave his own mark on the compelling story of an unlikely friendship.
Twelve year old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely boy who’s being bullied at school. When young Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her “dad” (Richard Jenkins) move in next door, Owen thinks he’s found a friend. As sudden acts of violence mar the snowy landscape, Owen and Abby grow closer, providing each other a comfort no one else can.
While the original had an ominous sense of dread, a feel of bleak isolation, and a brazen androgyny that the update can’t touch, Let Me In scores points all its own.
Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (The Road) are both terrific, and give the film a touching, vulnerable soul. Reeves, also adapting the screenplay, ups the ante on the gore, and provides more action, scares and overall shock value. Incredibly, he even manages to build on the climactic “revenge” scene that was damn-near flawless the first time.
Together the films set the standard for child vampire fare, and neither one should be missed.
The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta) (2010)
Who’s in the mood for something weird?
Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango) returns to form with The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.
Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.
Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.
Like Tarantino, Igelsia pulls together ideas and images from across cinema and blends them into something uniquely his own, crafting a film that’s somewhat familiar, but never, ever predictable.
The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.
Carlos Areces and Antonio de la Torre soar as the clowns at odds over the love of an acrobat (Carolina Bang, in another of the film’s wonderfully fresh performances). Areces’s tortured Sad Clown versus Torre’s sadistic Happy Clown – it’s a battle to the death in one of the more entertainingly garish political allegories in Spanish cinema.
Not everyone considers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.
Tobe Hooper’s camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.
Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming.
Hooper also cast aside any concerns for dignity or fair play, a theme best personified by wheelchair-bound Franklin. Franklin is supremely unlikeable – whiney and selfish – ending horror’s long history of using personal vulnerability to make a character more sympathetic. Films such as Wait Until Dark, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Rear Window (all excellent movies) ratcheted up tension through the sympathy they could generate toward the helpless character. These films’ anxiety and payoff both owe everything to watching the vulnerable protagonist in danger, and waiting for them to overcome the odds.
But Hooper is after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.
But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.
So, poor, unlikeable Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave-robbed. They just want to make sure Grampy’s still resting in peace – an adventure which eventually leads to most of them making a second trip to a cemetery. Well, what’s left of them.
Give writer/director Jorge Michel Grau credit, he took a fresh approach to the cannibalism film. His Spanish language picture lives in a drab underworld of poverty teeming with disposable populations and those who consume flesh, figuratively and literally.
In a quiet opening sequence, a man dies in a mall. It happens that this is a family patriarch and his passing leaves the desperately poor family in shambles. While their particular quandary veers spectacularly from expectations, there is something primal and authentic about it.
It’s as if a simple relic from a hunter-gatherer population evolved separately but within the larger urban population, and now this little tribe is left without a leader. An internal power struggle begins to determine the member most suited to take over as the head of the household, and therefore, there is some conflict and competition – however reluctant – over who will handle the principal task of the patriarch: that of putting meat on the table.
We’re never privy to the particulars – which again gives the whole affair a feel of authenticity – but adding to the crisis is the impending Ritual, which apparently involves a deadline and some specific meat preparations.
Grau’s approach is so subtle, so honest, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror film. Indeed, were this family fighting to survive on a more traditional level, this film would simply be a fine piece of social realism focused on Mexico City’s enormous population in poverty. But it’s more than that. Sure, the cannibalism is simply an extreme metaphor, but it’s so beautifully thought out and executed!
The family dynamic is fascinating, every glance weighted and meaningful, every closed door significant. Grau draws eerie, powerful performances across the board, and forever veers in unexpected directions.
We Are What We Are is among the finest family dramas or social commentaries of 2010. Blend into that drama some deep perversity, spooky ambiguities and mysteries, deftly handled acting, and a lot of freaky shit and you have hardly the goriest film in the genre, but certainly one of the most relevant.
An intriguing American remake of sorts is forthcoming, but do yourself a favor and check out the original.
It’s nearly Halloween, and it turns out that children’s hunger for age-appropriate scares rivals their taste for those elusive, full size trick-or-treat candy bars. Mmmmmm … chocolatey age-appropriate scares. Well, we’re here to help stave off starvation with these new and old school viewing options.
For the Very Young
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Hayao Miyazaki – often called Japan’s answer to Walt Disney – shares the sweetly magical tale of a budding young witch. Fun adventures befall the little witch-in-training, who becomes a baker’s courier to gain broom-flying skill. Kids will like the holiday feel, the cat and the hijinks with no worry of big scares.
For the Still Quite Wee
Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
This film is so utterly enjoyable, charming, and silly that you almost miss the true ingenuity and craft in the animation itself. British placticine duo Wallace – inventor and cheese lover – and his silently worried dog Gromit, take on the bunnies upsetting town gardeners. But things go all Halloweeney on them. This is the kind of film that begs to be scanned for its clever details (the town barbershop is called A Close Shave, for instance), but it’s the unselfconscious, innocent comedy and remarkable animation that make the film a stunning success. Wallace & Gromit belong in the highest echelon of doofus and silent sidekick comedy teams, and everyone in your family has reason to see their first full length feature.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Honestly, this is not one of Pixar’s greatest efforts, but a second tier Pixar film still beats the pants off most anything else you and your kids might watch. The animation is stunning. (Who doesn’t, right now, want to have a fuzzy blue Sulley doll?! You? What are you, a sociopath?) A couple of best buds living in Monstropolis have to keep it under wraps that a child has infiltrated the city. She’s a serious risk of contamination – this is a real danger, actually, because children are filthy germ bags. And they’re often quite sticky. Pixar knows this, and alerts us to the potential epidemic via fuzzy monster characters.
In stellar black and white, Tim Burton animates the tale of a quiet young scientist and his undead dog. Odes to the classics of horror will entertain the parents (maybe even grandparents) in the audience, but the lovely boy/dog friendship, quirky school kids, and science-related peril will entertain the kids. Plus, Mr. Rzykurski (Martin Landau) is the most spectacular science teacher ever, as depicted in his speech to parents at the PTA meeting: Ladies and gentlemen. I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant. Is that right word, ignorant? I mean stupid, primitive, unenlightened.
For The Not Too Wee
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Back in 1993, Tim Burton produced the classic goth holiday extravaganza The Nightmare Before Christmas, having handed over his own sketches and story to director Henry Selick and the world’s coolest stop-action animators. Burton’s team, including Danny Elfman on tunes, assembled a lightheartedly macabre fantasy that artfully yet cataclysmically mixed America’s two most indulgent and excessive holidays. It was inspired.
Corpse Bride (2005)
The first animated film Tim Burton directed is equal parts wholesome and gruesome, somehow effortlessly combined. A nervous groom practices his wedding vows in a forest, unwittingly awakening a bride murdered on her wedding night. She misunderstands and accepts is promise of love. The reluctant groom is ushered into the afterlife, which is more like a cool blues club than a cloudy resting place, where he is welcomed by a delightfully grisly cast of characters.
The comedy is clever, the bride’s heartbreak is often genuinely poignant, and the rotty flesh is just as natural as the pre-wedding jitters. It’s no Jack Skellington, but it is close.
Monster House (2006)
This one is likely to scare little ones, what with its super creepy sideshow circus backdrop, scary old man and a house that actually eats people. Loads of endearing and interesting characters fall upon the kinds of everyday scares that bloom in a child’s imagination. Well written, honestly spooky, and eventually quite heart tugging, Monster House was a surprise Oscar nomination back in ’06, and is still an underseen Halloween gem.
Coraline is a two-sided cautionary tale. For kids wishing for more attentive parents, be careful what you wish for. For parents disinterested in their tweens, danger lurks and lures your girls. Adapted for the screen and directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas), Coraline offers darkly magical visuals, quirky and creepy characters, and a surprisingly disturbing storyline. The film is clever and goth-gorgeous, but may be a little too creepy for kids under 10.
“I see dead people” takes on new legs with this animated tale of the supernatural. ParaNorman celebrates cinematic horror with the story of a little boy whose closest buds are the goofy new kid and his own long-dead grandma. But Norman’s gift of seeing ghosts proves pretty beneficial when some witchy chicanery threatens the whole town. Plus, big props for including a gay couple in a family-friendly flick.
John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World is both reverent and barrier-breaking, losing a bit of the original’s Cold War dread, but concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.
A beard-tastic cast portrays the team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic who take in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in a cut-off wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.
This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside.
Rob Bottin’s FX, especially for the time, blew minds. That spider head move – woo-hoo!
The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists.
The film was an inexplicable bomb with audiences and critics alike when it opened, but it’s gone on to become a must see.
Horror cinema’s most common and terrifying villain may not be the vampire or even the zombie, but the hillbilly. The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and hundreds of others both play upon and solidify urban dwellers’ paranoia about good country folk. The generous, giddy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil lampoons that dread with good natured humor and a couple of rubes you can root for.
In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead, T&DVE lovingly sends up a familiar subgenre with insightful, self-referential humor, upending expectations by taking the point of view of the presumably villainous hicks. And it happens to be hilarious.
Two backwoods buddies (an endearing Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) head to their mountain cabin for a weekend of fishing. En route they meet some college kids on their own camping adventure. A comedy of errors, misunderstandings and subsequent, escalating violence follows as the kids misinterpret every move Tucker and Dale make.
Director Eli Craig’s clever role reversal screenplay, co-written with Morgan Jurgenson, recreates the tension-building scenes that have become horror shorthand for “the hillbillies are coming.” From the bait and tackle/convenience store encounter with bib overall clad townies, to the campfire retelling of likeminded teens lost forever in the wooded abyss, the set up is perfect.
Each punchline offers the would-be killers’ innocent point of view – expressing their increasingly baffled take on what appears to them to be a suicide pact among the coeds.
T&DVE offers enough spirit and charm to overcome most weaknesses. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.
Psycho may have asked us to look at the weird relationships possible with mothers and sons, but fathers and daughters can develop dangerously close bonds, as well. For proof, just gander at this Aussie freakshow.
Writer/director/Tasmanian Sean Byrne upends high school clichés and deftly maneuvers between angsty, gritty drama and neon-colored, glittery carnage in a story that borrows from other horror flicks but absolutely tells its own tale.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is dealing with guilt and tragedy in his own way, and his girlfriend Holly tries to be patient with him. Oblivious to all this, Lola (a gloriously wrong-minded Robin McLeavy) asks Brent to the school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.
Byrne quietly crafts an atmosphere of loss and depression in and around the school without painting the troubles cleanly. This slow reveal pulls the tale together and elevates it above a simple work of outrageous violence.
Inside Lola’s house, the mood is decidedly different. Here, we’re privy to the weirdest, darkest image of a spoiled princess and her daddy. The daddy/daughter bonding over power tool related tasks is – well – I’m not sure touching is the right word for it.
The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, unique piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter. It’s a wild, violent, depraved to spend 84 minutes. You should do so now.
It looked like 2013 might be the year of the horror film. First came the visceral thrill of the Evil Dead reboot, then the spectral fun of The Conjuring. With the buzz surrounding the indie fright film You’re Next, it looked like we might be in store for the season’s third solid genre pic.
Adam Wingard’s film has been lauded as Scream meets The Cabin in the Woods, which isn’t entirely wrong. You’re Next is a derivative work that copies Scream’s wink-and-nod use of genre tropes and applies them to a home invasion storyline, this time set in an isolated, wooded area.
Pudgy, weak, whitebread Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings his girlfriend to his parents’ secluded anniversary celebration. Uninvited guests in animal masks pick off attendants, but they’ve underestimated one guest.
Wingard is part of a new generation of horror filmmakers, a fraternity style community with members who work together frequently. Indeed, Wingard worked with Ti West on the compilation VHS; Bowan co-starred in West’s House of the Devil; West handles a small role in You’re Next as a boyfriend/filmmaker/victim.
Unfortunately, none of them makes particularly good films.
Not that You’re Next is especially bad. It’s just that, aside from some relatively entertaining sibling bitchiness, most of the ideas are cribbed from better films. Masked home invaders is far scarier in The Strangers; the animal masks saw their debut in 1973’s The Wicker Man; many of the home invasion defense moves come directly from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. It’s a long list.
Yes there’s a twist and some humor, but folks calling this film “a cut above” have clearly not seen some of the competition. Hell, You’re Next is not even the best “cabin in the woods” film released this year. What it is, is safe.
You’re Next subverts tensions before they can generate real terror. Wingard either lets the audience in on the secret or injects a bit of humor every time the film gets honestly tense. He undercuts each scene’s opportunity to scare, falling back on humor or action movie one-upsmanship instead.
One of the many genius moves Wes Craven made with his genre-upending 1996 filmScream was to balance humor and scares, to mine that tension that either bursts with a scream or a laugh. That’s the work of a horror filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.
You’re Next is the work of Adam Wingard. It turns out, that’s not quite the same thing.