Small town sociopath, isolated farmhouse on land littered with rusted out car carcasses, a basement freezer full of human heads—Poor Agnes has all the trappings of your garden variety serial killer flick.
All but one: Lora Burke.
Burke plays Agnes, a woman who knows what she likes.
The film plays out like the origin story of some unstoppable slasher, and that works pretty well. Director Navin Rameswaran complicates his narrative and Agnes’s life with a side trip into Stockholm syndrome territory.
Agnes spends her days either chopping wood or injecting men with a concoction featuring “rat poison, mostly.” But she takes a liking to would-be victim Mike (Robert Notman), a low-rent private investigator whom no one will miss.
Rather than dispatching him quickly, Agnes indulges her inclination to play God and see how well she can re-mold Mike in her own image. Things seem to go smoothly until their twosome becomes a threesome.
While Burke’s unapologetically convincing, Notman’s performance is less so. Maybe his metamorphosis is too truncated by James Gordon Ross’s script, or maybe Notman can’t manage to sell the transformation. Whichever, too often his behavior feels utterly false. What we needed out of Notman was a version of Patty Hearst, but his face is a blank slate, his actions inauthentic.
That’s a real problem for this film because a tangy villain can only carry a story so far. Burke’s turn commands attention. She’s unafraid to be profoundly unlikeable, but she’s never over-the-top. It’s an alarmingly natural, more alarmingly believable portrait of a psychopath.
Who loves horror? We do, you do, and that’s probably why homage horror is so satisfying. Filmmakers take a self-referential approach to draw attention to the tropes of the genre they – and we – love. It’s not a spoof, not a satire, it’s a loving ode to the genre. It’s like a big, bloody bear hug, and we are in!
5. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
This loving slasher offers not just clever, self-referential writing, but surprisingly likeable performances, given the topic. Leslie (Nathan Baesel – magnificent) intends to become the next great serial killer. Not your garden-variety killer, but the stuff of legend: Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, Leslie Vernon.
A documentary news crew (of sorts) led by intern Taylor (Angela Goethals) documents Leslie’s preparations.
Director/co-writer Scott Glosserman nails a tone that’s comical, affectionate to the genre, and eventually scary. Part Man Bites Dog, part Scream, the film could easily feel stale. It does not.
This is partly due to the wit and intelligence in the screenplay, but an awful lot of the film’s success rides on Baesel’s shoulders. As the budding legend, Baesel is so charming as to be impossible to root against. He’s borderline adorable, even as he slashes his way through teen after teen unwise enough to party at the old, abandoned Vernon farm.
4. Stitches (2012)
There are a lot of scary clowns in films, but not that many can carry an entire film. Stitches can.
This Irish import sees a half-assed clown accidentally offed at a 10-year-old’s birthday party, only to return to finish his act when the lad turns 16.
Yes, it is a familiar slasher set up: something happened ten years ago – an accident! It was nobody’s fault! They were only children!! And then, ten years later, a return from the grave timed perfectly with a big bash that lets the grisly menace pick teens off one by one. But co-writer/director Connor McMahon does not simply tread that well-worn path. He makes glorious use of the main difference: his menace is a sketchy, ill-tempered clown.
Dark yet bawdy humor and game performances elevate this one way above teen slasher. Gory, gross, funny and well-acted – it brings to mind some of Peter Jackson’s early work. It’s worth a look.
3. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2010)
Horror cinema’s most common and terrifying villain may not be the vampire or even the zombie, but the hillbilly. 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.
T&DVE offers enough spirit and charm to overcome any weakness. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.
2. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.
1. Scream (1996)
In his career, Wes Craven has reinvented horror any number of times. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.
What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after.
We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but we think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
A staple of the horror genre – the final girl. She’s been beaten, tied up, duct taped, stabbed and generally misused, but she soldiers on. Whether through virtue, savvy, or just general badassedness, these women are not above doing what’s necessary to make it through to the sequel – even if that means putting on Jason’s dead mother’s moth-eaten sweater, because that shit had to be gamey. So today our Senior Aussie/Slasher Correspondent Cory Metcalfe joins us again to celebrate the best final girls in horror.
6. Erin (Sharni Vinson – You’re Next, 2011)
Erin is Australian, which is clearly the deciding factor here. She joins her boyfriend for a family holiday in a gorgeous vacation home deep in the woods. Which sounds worse, the first meeting with the family or “deep in the woods”? In her case, that is seriously a toss-up. The gathering is disrupted by violent, mask-wearing psychopaths, but they weren’t prepared for Erin.
Erin’s one of the few at the event who’s new to the family, so she’s hard for the villains to predict. And we find that her boyfriend – a college prof who dates his students, including Erin – doesn’t know nearly enough about her. It’s a great tale of unreasonably low expectations. It’s also, a great character because Erin is savvy, tough, and fearless.
5. Mia (Jane Levy – Evil Dead, 2013)
With the helpful pen of Oscar winner Diablo Cody (uncredited), Fede Alvarez turns all the particulars of the Evil Dead franchise on end. You can tick off so many familiar characters, moments and bits of dialog, but you can’t predict what will happen.
One of the best revisions is the character of Mia: the first to go and yet the sole survivor. She’s the damaged one, and the female who’s there without a male counterpart, which means (by horror standards), she’s the one most likely to be a number in the body count, but because of what she has endured in her life she’s able to make seriously tough decisions to survive – like tearing off her own damn arm. Nice!
Plus, it rains blood! How awesome is that?!
4. Sarah (Shauna McDonald – The Descent, 2005)
Sarah is another one who appears to be the weak link but proves her meddle. She suffers an almost unendurable tragedy in the opening scene, and a year later, when she and her friends regroup to spend a holiday together spelunking in West Virginia, she appears to be the delicate one. What she goes through in the early part of the film informs her ability to survive – as her friend Beth points out (to her and to us) when Sarah gets caught in the narrow tunnel.
She’s quiet and observant, smart and proactive – all excellent qualities once we find out that the group is not only lost inside an unmapped underground cave with no hope of being found, but that the cave already has residents, and dude! Are they creepy!
The way Sarah evolves, and the turns the character and the film take, are surprising and impressive.
Back in 1974, the “final girl” formula hadn’t been perfected. The slasher genre barely even existed, but Tobe Hooper already knew how to play with genre expectations. Yes, Sally Hardesty is the sweet one, the pretty one, the one likeliest to be the last in line for that chainsaw, but there’s a lot more to her than halter tops and bell bottoms.
Marilyn Burns mines for something primal in this performance, which is absolutely necessary if we’re to believe this girl has what it takes to survive the cannibal family. Sally’s mania is recognizable, necessary to the viewer. No one is yelling advice or judgement at the screen because who in the hell could possibly know what to do in this situation?
Unlike so many female characters in horror before her and since, Sally doesn’t whimper and rely on the villain’s conscience to save her. She negotiates, and when she realizes that’s getting her nowhere, she makes tough choices (like throwing herself out a window – because no fate could be worse than the one that clearly awaits her otherwise). In keeping with the film, Burns’s performance is gritty, unpleasant, insane and perfect.
2. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween, 1978)
In 1978, Laurie Strode became the definition of “final girl” in much the same way that Carpenter’s horror masterpiece became the definition of slasher – the blueprint for the genre. For many, Jamie Lee Curtis’s girl-next-door is the ultimate final girl.
There’s great reason for that. She distilled everything that came before and became the model for what would come after in the slasher film: virtuous, smart, self-sacrificing. But Curtis does it with more intelligence and onscreen grace than those before or (mostly) after in the slasher genre. She’s virtuous, but not judgy. She’s hot, but not overtly so. She’s also brave and smart.
The reason the character transcended genre trappings to become iconic is not the writing or the film itself, but Curtis’s performance. An effortless intelligence shines through regardless of Laurie’s actions, and it elevates the film and the genre.
1. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver – Alien, 1979)
Who could possibly push Laurie Strode to second place? Ellen Ripley could.
Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien and its many sequels is a savvy, tough, no-nonsense survivor. She is clearly the smartest member of the Nostromo crew: she understands chain of command and values quarantine regulations; she’s the first to recognize Ash (Ian Holm) as a villain; she understands the need to blow the ship; she outsmarts the predator.
Her sexuality is beside the point, which is entirely refreshing in this genre and for the role of final girl. She also changed the game for “final girls.” No longer could we accept a beautiful, sobbing mess who made ridiculous decisions, refused to fight back, and survived based entirely on her virtue. Ripley is never a victim, rarely makes an uninformed decision, and kicks all manner of ass. That’s why she survives. She’s not hoping to be saved, she’s just doing what it takes to get the F out of Dodge and keep Earth safe.
For the first time in – perhaps ever – a full-on horror short appears to be in the running for an Oscar nomination.
Shant Hamassian’s one-take wonder Night of the Slasher offers a clever, funny, self-referential look at slasher films and manages to tell a complete tale, develop a character, scare, and entertain – all in about 12 minutes.
The pacing is wonderful, and with each passing minute Hamassian unveils another piece of information we didn’t realize we were missing. A protagonist (Lily Berlina), for reasons unexplained but certainly suggested, appears to be trying to unravel the slasher’s formula. Her goal is certainly to defeat the killer, but she may turn into a monster herself in the process.
A couple of very funny lines, a handful of perfectly placed visual gags, and camerawork that never feels like a gimmick separate Night of the Slasher from other horror comedies. Certainly the story follows the same path as Scream and, more recently, The Final Girls, but Hamassian finds new ground to break. Efficiency is on his side. Nothing is belabored, everything compels attention.
The masked maniac brings with him the film’s cheekiest joke, but Berlina plays the heroine with a raspy desperation and tenacity that elevate the film above spoof.
The short was carved from a full length screenplay and filmed as an attempt to get funding for a full feature. Here’s hoping!
Part of the satisfying lull of a slasher film is its predictability: idiotic characters behave lasciviously and are repaid for their indignities with the hard justice of a machete. They are scary movies for people who don’t really want to be scared, they’d rather enjoy the idiocy.
People like, I think we can assume, co-writers M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, whose The Final Girls celebrates the genre and its fans with a meta-flick brimming with genre affection and upbeat carnage.
Max (Taissa Farmiga) never really got over the loss of her mother, scream queen Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman). She and her friends find themselves pulled into Mom’s most famous film – the ‘80s slasher Camp Bloodbath – and need to use their knowledge of slasher conventions to survive.
The film is far more a comedy than a horror flick – the casting of Adam DeVine (Workaholics) alone clarifies that. But don’t expect a spoof or cynical parody. There’s real love for the ironic pleasures of the genre that keeps the film lighthearted and fresh.
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson deconstructs the overly familiar genre, replacing its mean spirit with broad strokes of goofiness. He and his cast see these characters as something one-dimensional, but still worthwhile – rather than presenting them as simply the ingredients for Camp Counselor Slurry.
Supporting work from DeVine, Tom Middleditch, Angela Trimbur, and Alia Shawkat freshens up the predictability with sharp, spontaneous comedy that elevates the film above its clever gimmick.
The film shoehorns in some emotion as well, but it’s at its best when reveling in the familiar. Farmiga is saddled with the least playful, mostly humorless role, but her dour presence is offset by the fun lunacy around her.
There are flat spots, and the film is never the laugh riot of other recent horror comedies (Deathgasm, for instance), but it is a spot-on send up that entertains throughout.
Senior Aussie Correspondent Cory Metcalfe makes a return trip, because he is a slasher junky and we needed the assist. Together we walk through the five best slashers in cinematic history, but first we had a couple of arguments to settle.
There are millions of potential films in this category, so we defined the term slasher for our purposes. Well, Hope defined it and George grumbled about it. Definition: A group is stalked in a neighborhood/woods (not a single, isolated location) by a seemingly indestructible killer with a blade of some kind. So, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Maniac.
On to our second argument – one of Cory’s all-time favorites (and likely a film you expect to see here) did not make the list. Again, blame Hope, though Cory was a great sport about it.
With that out of the way, it’s time: Fright Club counts down the five best slashers!
5. Bay of Blood (1971)
Here is where you might have seen Friday the 13th, but won’t. In fact, nearly every campground slasher – The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, the wonderful new Belgian horror Cub – all owe a debt, not really to Friday the 13th, but to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve).
If you’re familiar with Bava (and you should be), it’s probably because of his more romantic, visually lovely films like Black Sunday, but in ’71 he made his bloodiest film and created nearly every gimmick we’d soon see across the slasher subgenre.
The story is basically nonsensical. There’s a murder early on that sets up a fight for an inheritance; meanwhile four nubile youths stumble into the same inheritable bayside cottage, where they have sex, skinny dip, die, etc. You will notice entire scenes lifted directly for use in Friday the 13th, but the film is also fun because, as it predates the genre, it often feels like it’s somehow veered off the path (because there was no path yet). So Bay of Blood gets the nod because it did it first.
4. Black Christmas (1974)
The other foundational work in the genre, like Bay of Blood, Black Christmas created the architecture for the slasher. Fun trivia: director Bob Clark made two Christmas-themed films in his erratic career, including the iconic A Christmas Story (You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!). Black Christmas is remembered less well.
Sure, it’s another case of mysterious phone calls leading to grisly murders; sure it’s another one-by-one pick off of sorority stereotypes; sure, there’s a damaged child backstory; naturally John Saxon co-stars. Wait, what was different? Oh, yeah, two things. Maybe three. The story veers off on a red herring chase that’s utterly ludicrous. Also, the actors – Margot Kidder, in particular – show more commitment than you’d normally see in this kind of film. Most importantly, the phone calls are actually pretty scary. There’s something unseemly about them, unsettling.
Why the girls remain in the sorority house (if only they’d had an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!), or why campus police are so baffled remains a mystery, but Clark was onto something with the phone calls, as evidenced by the number of films that ripped off this original convention.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care.
Depositing a boogieman in your dreams, creating nightmares that will truly kill you, was a genius concept by writer/director Wes Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.
Plus, Craven had plenty of iconic kills and images up his sleeve. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the weirdly long arms out behind Tina are still super scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy. All of that plus an iconic villain, brought to glorious life by Robert Englund’s darkly comical performance, and you have a real keeper.
2. Scream (1996)
A dozen years after recreating the genre with Nightmare, Wes Craven did it again. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.
What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
1. Halloween (1978)
No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
From the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter develops anxiety like nobody else, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the anxiety. Perfect.
The Nineties boasted more good horror than you might remember. It was a time of big budget, Oscar nominated studio films like Misery and early genre work from filmmakers who would go on to become the best in the business, like Fincher’s Seven, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Foreign films made a splash – Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and a wave of Japanese films that would have a powerful influence in the next decade of American horror. Here we pick the best of the decade.
5. Cape Fear (1991)
In 1991, Martin Scorsese toyed with the horror genre with a remake of the ’62 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum power struggle between a steamy psychopath and an uptight lawyer. Scorsese mines the very ripe concept for more outright horror, recasting Robert DeNiro – still on top of his game and garnering an Oscar nomination – as Max Cady, a deeply disturbed criminal who should not be underestimated. Nick Nolte takes on the Peck role, but it’s Juliette Lewis (also Oscar nominated) as Nolte and Jessica Lange’s teenage daughter who amps up the unseemly tension.
Scorsese and his cast know how to wring anxiety from an audience and their film brims with a sultry tension that keeps everything on edge. It’s masterful storytelling with a throwback feel, the kind of film that finds you yelling at the screen, not because characters are doing anything stupid, but because you know better than they do just how terrifying Max Cady is. Still, the evil that he can do manages to stagger every single time.
4. Scream (1996)
In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.
One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon nightmares I have almost every night.
2. Audition, 1999
Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.
Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking from horror master Takashi Miike. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror. Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax. By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.
Keep an eye on that burlap sack.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.
Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s greatest and scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. But it’s Ted Levine who goes underappreciated. Levine’s Buffalo Bill makes such a great counterpoint to Hopkins’s Lecter. He’s all animal – big, lumbering, capable of explosive violence – where Lecter’s all intellect. Buffalo Bill’s a curiously sexual being, where Lecter is all but asexual.
Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin, though, in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.
Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Clarice and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals.
More than that, during their conversations, Demme captures each character’s reflection in the partition glass as the other speaks, once again making the visual impression that these two are equals, have similarities, are in some ways alike. No one is like Buffalo Bill. He’s incomprehensible. Unacceptable. But Demme generates something akin to sympathy in his depiction of Hannibal in relation to Clarice, and given how terrifying he is, that’s equally unsettling.
Man, those cenobites were scary cool, weren’t they?
Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s feature directing debut, worked not only as a grisly splatterfest, but also as a welcome shift from the rash of teen slasher movies that followed the success of Halloween. Barker was exploring more adult, decidedly kinkier fare, and Hellraiser is steeped in themes of S&M and the relationship between pleasure and pain.
Hedonist Frank Cotton solves an ancient puzzle box, which summons the fearsome Cenobites, who literally tear Frank apart and leave his remains rotting in the floorboards of an old house. Years later, Frank’s brother Larry moves into that house with his teenage daughter Kirsty and his new wife Julia (who, oh yeah, also happens to be Frank’s ex-lover).
A gash on Larry’s leg spills blood on the floor, which awakens the remains of Frank, who then requires more blood to complete his escape from the underworld. Julia, both repulsed and aroused by her old flame’s half-alive form, agrees to make sure more blood is soon spilled.
Meanwhile, young Kirsty accidentally opens the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites come for her, she offers a deal: let me go, and I’ll lead you to Uncle Frank.
What? A teenager in a horror flick doing some cool headed problem solving?
It was another way that Hellraiser rose above some weak production elements to stand out, and hail the arrival of Clive Barker as an important new name in horror.
Back in ’76, Brian De Palma brought Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, to the screen and a terrifying vision of persecution and comeuppance emerged. But that was almost twenty five years before Columbine, and the image of the bullied and confused wreaking bloody revenge at a high school has taken on a different tenor.
That’s no doubt why King’s tale made its way to television in 2002 with a fresh take on the horror. But things in high school have changed again, and the story of Carrie White takes on particular tragedy in a wired time where another innocent high school girl takes her life almost weekly due to bullying. Perhaps that’s what drew filmmaker Kimberly Pierce, whose Boys Don’t Cry also outlines the tragedy that befalls a young woman violently unaccepted for who she is.
In Pierce’s hands, Carrie offers more stripped down drama – none of the scenery chewing of the De Palma original. There’s no humor to be found in the reboot, but realistic performances and updated context give the film enough bite to keep you watching.
Chloe Grace Moretz takes on lead duties as the youngster whose first monthly flow triggers all manner of havoc, from the most unconscionable bullying to telekentic powers. Oh, and her mom tries to kill her. So, not the blessing those Health Ed books try to tell us it is.
Moretz has a big prom dress to fill, and though she has always been a reliable talent, her turn here is unconvincing. Sissy Spacek truly was that innocent, a girl so repressed by her religious mother that she had no conscious knowledge of appropriate social behavior. Moretz is a cute, shy girl the mean kids dislike. It’s not the same.
The always exquisite Julianne Moore actually has an even larger task cut out for her. The role of Margaret White is a juicy one. Even the TV version drew the great Patricia Clarkson to the project. And Moore is characteristically strong, clearly defining the role in a terrifying yet almost sympathetic way. But she’s no Piper Laurie.
Laurie brought such vitality and insanity to the role that the prom became almost secondary, and her chemistry with Spacek was eerily perfect.
The updated context casts a truly saddening shadow over the film, making a major thematic adjustment without even trying. Stephen King wrote a story about hysteria over the dawning of womanhood. But today, the story carries an even darker message. Carrie is a cautionary tale about sending your kids to high school.
Yes, this is a bad film. It certainly falls into the “so bad it’s good” category, but it’s actually more than that. A seriously subversive film with blatant homosexual undertones, Sleepaway Camp is a bizarre take on the summer camp slasher. It’s also wildly entertaining.
It may be the shocking finale that gave the film its cult status, but it’s writer/director Robert Hilzik’s off-center approach to horror that makes it interesting. Dreamy flashbacks, weirdly gruesome murders, and a creepy (yet somehow refreshing) preoccupation with beefcake separate this one from the pack.
It’s not scary, certainly, but it is all manner of wrong. Aunt Martha – what kind of mad genius is this? The kill sequences are hugely imaginative, and the subversive approach to the entire film makes it hard to believe more people haven’t seen this gem.
There are sequels. They are worth skipping, although the first two boast the casting of Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela as the chipper sadist hatcheting her way through campers. So at least you have that.