Fright Club: Claustrophobic Horror

Claustrophobia is a common terror, which makes it a common theme in horror films. Whether the entire film generates a sense of entrapment (The Thing, Rec, Pontypool, Misery) or the filmmaker inserts moments of claustrophobic terror (Shadow in the Cloud, The Pit and the Pendulum), these movies hit a nerve. Today we spend some time in tight quarters counting down the most claustrophobic horror movies.


5. The Hole (2001)

Nick Hamm’s 2001 thriller finds a handful of spoiled boarding school teens sneaking away while the school’s on holiday. They want to see what kind of trouble they can get into with a couple of undetected days in the underground bomb shelter they discovered well behind the school.

It’s all fun and games until they can’t get out.

Thora Birch delivers a brilliant turn as the lead — vulnerable and yet entirely conniving and psychotic, her Liz is mesmerizing. Kiera Knightly shines as well, as does Embeth Davidtz as a detective who won’t be fooled by Liz’s psychosis.

Or will she?

4. Cube (1997)

Making his feature directing debut in 1997, Vincenzo Natali, working from a screenplay he co-wrote, shadows 7 involuntary inmates of a seemingly inescapable, booby-trapped mazelike structure. Those crazy Canucks!

Cube is the film Saw wanted to be. These people were chosen, and they must own up to their own weaknesses and work together as a team to survive and escape. It is a visually awe-inspiring, perversely fascinating tale of claustrophobic menace. It owes Kafka a nod, but honestly, stealing from the likes of Kafka is a crime we can get behind.

There is a level of nerdiness to the trap that makes it scary, in that you know you wouldn’t make it. You would die. We would certainly die. In fact, the minute they started talking about Prime Numbers, we knew we were screwed.

3. Buried (2010)

Almost did not make it past the trailer for this one. A tour de force meant to unveil Ryan Reynolds’s skill as an actor, Buried spends a breathless 95 minutes inside a coffin with the lanky Canadian, who’s left his quips on the surface.

A truck driver working in Iraq who wakes up after being hit on the head, Paul Conroy finds himself inside a coffin. He has a cell phone and a lighter, but not the skill of Uma Thurman, so he is pretty screwed.

The simple story and Reynolds’s raw delivery make this a gut-wrenching experience.

2. The Descent (2005)

A bunch of buddies get together for a spelunking adventure. One is still grieving a loss – actually, maybe more than one – but everybody’s ready for one of their outdoorsy group trip.
Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well-conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988)

Back in ’88, filmmaker George Sluizer and novelist Tim Krabbe adapted his novel about curiosity killing a cat. The result is a spare, grim mystery that works the nerves.

An unnervingly convincing Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu takes us through the steps, the embarrassing trial and error, of executing his plan. His Raymond is a simple person, really, and one fully aware of who he is: a psychopath and a claustrophobe.

Three years ago, Raymond abducted Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and her boyfriend Rex (Gene Bervoets) has gone a bit mad with the mystery of what happened to her. So mad, in fact, that when Raymond offers to clue him in as long as he’s willing to suffer the same fate, Rex bites. Do not make the mistake of watching Sluizer’s neutered 1993 American remake.

Fright Club: Travel Abroad Horror

There is something terrifying about being in a strange land, especially if the language is not your own. There are so many great horror flicks that take advantage of that sense of isolation and confusion that we needed a second list of stuff that didn’t make the final cut but that you should check out anyway: And Soon the Darkness (1970), Road Games (2015), Transsiberian (2008), Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007), The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009) and, in particular, the double shot of Spanish horror Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) and its 2012 remake, Come Out and Play.

What’s better? Here you go:

5. Suspiria (1977)

Italian director Dario Argento is in the business of colorfully dispatching nubile young women. In Suspiria, his strongest film, American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) moves to Germany to join a dance academy, but the other dancers are catty and the school is staffed with freaks. Plus, women keep disappearing and dying.

As Suzy undertakes an investigation of sorts, she discovers that the school is a front for a coven of witches. But Argento’s best film isn’t known for its plot, it’s become famous because of the visually disturbing and weirdly gorgeous imagery. Suspiria is a twisted fairy tale of sorts, saturating every image with detail and deep colors, oversized arches and doorways that dwarf the actors. Even the bizarre dubbing Argento favored in his earlier films works to feed the film’s effectively surreal quality.

4. Ils (Them) (2006)

Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit.

Writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up.

Set in Romania, Them follows Lucas and Clementine, a young couple still moving into the big rattling old house where they’ll stay while they’re working abroad. It will be a shorter trip than they’d originally planned.

What the film offers in 77 minutes is relentless suspense. I’m not sure what else you want.

Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.

3. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director John Landis blends horror, humor and a little romance with cutting edge (at the time) special effects to tell the tale of a handsome American tourist David (David Naughton) doomed to turn into a Pepper – I mean a werewolf – at the next full moon.

Two American college kids (Naughton and Griffin Dunne), riding in the back of a pickup full of sheep, backpacking across the moors, talk about girls and look for a place to duck out of the rain.

Aah, a pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – that’ll do!

The scene in the pub is awesome, as is the scene that follows, where the boys are stalked across the foggy moors. Creepy foreboding leading to real terror, this first act grabs you and the stage is set for a sly and scary escapade. The wolf looks cool, the sound design is fantastically horrifying, and Landis’s brightly subversive humor has never had a better showcase.

2. The Descent (2005)

A bunch of buddies head to the States for a spelunking adventure.

Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. Midsommar (2019)

In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds.

Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.

Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.

Fright Club: Best Vacation Horror Movies

When aren’t vacations a horror show? Remember that time the car a/c broke and your dad wouldn’t let you roll the windows down because the wind made his hearing aids whistle? God, that sucked. But our research had led us to believe that there are worse miseries than driving cross country with Mark Madden. Hundreds, actually – traveling abroad, camping, boating, island adventures. Here are a handful that will make you want to just stay home.

5. Wolf Creek (2005)

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, writer/director Greg McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.

If this sounds predictable and obvious to you, rest assured that McLean has plans to burst every cliché in the genre, and he succeeds on almost every level.

His first triumph is in the acting. Jarratt’s killer is an amiable sadist who is so real it’s jarring. You find yourself hoping he’s an actor. His performance singlehandedly shames the great Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, whose backwoods horror films relied so completely on caricatures for villains.

A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.

4. Eden Lake (2008)

The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.

Kids today!

The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Most impressive, Jack O’Connell’s performance as the young psychopath is chilling.

There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self-righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.

Don’t expect spectral terror in this one, though. Instead you’ll find a bunch of neighborhood kids pissed off at their lot in life and taking it out on someone alarmingly like you.

3. The Descent (2005)

A bunch of buddies get together for a spelunking adventure. One is still grieving a loss – actually, maybe more than one – but everybody’s ready for one of their outdoorsy group trip.
Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

2. Deliverance (1972)

Nine notes on a banjo have never sounded so creepy.

Deliverance follows four buddies staving off mid-life crises with a canoeing adventure in southern Georgia, where a man’s not afraid to admire another man’s mouth.

James Dickey streamlined his own novel to its atmospheric best, and director John Boorman plays on urbanite fears like few have done since. Dickey and Boorman mean to tell you that progress has created a soft bellied breed of man unable to survive without the comforts of a modern age.

The film, while steeped in testosterone, also mocks modern man’s desire to conquer nature. It does so by viewing the manly weekend through the eyes of four different types of men: Burt Reynolds’s alpha male, Ronny Cox’s open-hearted optimist, Jon Voight’s introspective intellectual, and poor, doomed Ned Beatty’s smug businessman.

Solid performances, particularly from Voight and Reynolds (this is the guy you want on your zombiepocalypse team), and startlingly effective photography fold perfectly into Boorman’s harrowing tale. This raw, unsettling authenticity helps Deliverance sidestep a hixploitation label, but you’re not likely to look at rural Southerners the same way again.

1. Funny Games (’97, ’07)

A family pulls into their vacation lake home. They are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.

Writer/director/genius Michael Haneke begins this nerve wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.

The teen thugs’ calm, bemused sadism leaves you both indignant and terrified as they put the family through a series of horrifying games. And several times, they (and Haneke) remind us that we are participating in this ugliness, too, as we’ve tuned in to see the family suffer. Sure, we root for the innocent to prevail, but we came into this with the specific intention of seeing harm come to them. So, the villains rather insist that we play, too.

His English language remake is a shot for shot repeat of the German language original. In both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.

1997:

2007:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48s781bxWF8





Fright Club: Best Final Girls

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.

3. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

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.

Thanks, Ellen!





Fright Club: Best Creature Features

SciFi and horror don’t always play well together, but our one commonality will forever bridge the waters separating our nerdiness: creature features. For whatever reason, tales of oversized monsters, generally unleashed at the hands of mad science, appeals to both crowds even more than a marauding serial killer in a Shatner mask. Today we celebrate that common ground by counting down the five best creature features in horror.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

5. The Fly (1986)

After a couple of interesting, if un-medical films, the great David Cronenberg made a triumphant return to the laboratory of the mad scientist in his most popular film to date.

But it’s not just Cronenberg’s disturbed genius for images and ideas that makes The Fly fly; it’s the performance he draws from Jeff Goldblum.

Goldblum is an absolute gift to this film, so endearing in his pre-Brundlefly nerdiness. He’s the picture’s heartbeat, and it’s more than the fact that we like his character so much. The actor also performs heroically under all those prosthetics.

He and Geena Davis make the perfect pair, with their matching height and mullets, and their onscreen chemistry does give the film a level of human drama traditionally lacking from the Cronenberg canon. Atop that, there’s the transformation scene in the bathroom – the fingernails, the pustules – all classic Cronenberg grotesquerie, and still difficult to watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BzwxJ-M_M0

 

4. The Descent (2005)

The film begins with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly follows with some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, then turns dizzyingly panicky before it snaps a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

Writer/director Neil Marshall makes incredible use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a clever and frightening werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.

For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

3. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World concocts a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination, and mutation.

A beard-tastic cast portrays a 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 an isolated 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.

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7t-919Ec9U

 

2. Alien (1979)

Director Ridley Scott’s other masterpiece, Alien, traps a crew aboard a rickety, dark, workingman’s spacecraft with the coolest monster perhaps ever.

After a vagina-hand-sucker-monster attaches itself to your face, it gestates inside you, then tears through your innards. Then it grows exponentially, hides a second set of teeth, and bleeds acid. How much cooler could this possibly be?

Compare that to the crew, and the competition seems unreasonably mismatched. The sunken-chested Harry Dean Stanton, the screechy Veronica Cartwright, the sinister Ian Holm, the mustachioed Tom Skerritt, even the mulleted Sigourney Weaver – they all seem doomed before we even get to know them.

Much ado has been made, rightfully so, of the John Hurt Chest Explosion (I loved their early work, before they went commercial). But Scott’s lingering camera leaves unsettling impressions in far simpler ways, starting with the shot of all those eggs.

 

 

1. Jaws (1975)

Twentysomething Steven Spielberg’s game-changer boasts many things, among them one of the greatest threesomes in cinematic history. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.

It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera and Verna Fields’s editing, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. It all works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.

Spielberg achieved one of the rare adaptations that betters the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.

Jaws is the high water mark for animal terror. Likely it always will be.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCjDa44S3kI

 





Day 15: The Descent

The Descent (2005)

A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of friends, who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen. The Descent is the most profoundly claustrophobic film since The Vanishing (the original, not that wussy Keifer Sutherland remake).

This spelunking adventure comes with a familiar cast of characters: arrogant authority figure, maverick, emotionally scarred question mark, bickering siblings, and a sad-sack tag along.  And yet, somehow, the interaction among them feels surprisingly authentic, and not just because each is cast as a woman.

These ladies are not Green Berets who, unlike the audience, are trained for extreme circumstances. These particular thrill seekers are just working stiffs on vacation. It hits a lot closer to home.

More importantly, the cast is rock solid, each bringing a naturalness to her character that makes her absolutely horrifying, merciless, stunningly brutal final moments on this earth that much more meaningful.

Writer/director Neil Marshall must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.

He makes even better use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience.

The film begins with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly follows with some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, then turns dizzyingly panicky before it snaps a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.

For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





Fright Club: Best British Horror

We are thrilled to have Senior British Correspondent Craig Hunter of SCREENRELISH join us to look at some of our favorite British horror movies. From classics of Hammer to some of today’s most disturbing films, we count down the five best.

5. Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958)

In 1958, Hammer Films began its long and fabulous love affair with the cloaked one, introducing the irrefutably awesome Christopher Lee as the Count.

Their tale varies a bit from Stoker’s, but the main players are mostly accounted for. Peter Cushing steps in early and often as Van Helsing, bringing his inimitable brand of prissy kick-ass, but its Lee who carries the film.

Six foot 5 and sporting that elegant yet sinister baritone, Lee cuts by far the most intimidating figure of the lot as Dracula. Director Terence Fisher uses that to the film’s advantage by developing a far more vicious, brutal vampire than what we’d seen previously.

Still the film is about seduction, though, which gives Lee’s brute force an unseemly thrill. Unlike so many victims in other vampire tales, it’s not just that Melissa Stribling’s Mina is helpless to stop Dracula’s penetration. She’s in league. She wants it.

Ribald stuff for 1958!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTyBClMmoyQ

4. Kill List (2011)

Never has the line “Thank you” had a weirder effect than in the genre bending adventure Kill List.

Hitman Jay (a volcanic Neil Maskell) is wary to take another job after the botched Kiev assignment, but his bank account is empty and his wife Shel (an also eruptive MyAnna Buring) has become vocally impatient about carrying the financial load. But this new gig proves to be seriously weird.

Without ever losing that gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities.

As Kill List drifts toward its particular flavor of horror, Wheatley pulls deftly from some of the most memorable films of a similar taste. For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

3. Eden Lake (2009)

The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.

James Watkins’s screenplay keeps you nervous and guessing with some clever maneuvers and horrific turns.

The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Fassbender’s bravado strikes an honest note, and Reilly’s Jenny is capable, smart and compassionate. More than anything, though, the film owes its unsettling ability to stay with you to an unnerving performance from the up and coming Jack O’Connell.

It’s an upwardly mobile urbanite nightmare, well made and crafted to stay with you.

2. The Descent (2005)

A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of friends, who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen.

This spelunking adventure comes with a familiar cast of characters: arrogant authority figure, maverick, emotionally scarred question mark, bickering siblings, and a sad-sack tag along. And yet, somehow, the interaction among them feels surprisingly authentic, and not just because each is cast as a woman.

Writer/director Neil Marshall makes excellent use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience. Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

1. 28 Days Later (2002)

Activists break into a research lab and free the wrong fucking monkeys.

28 days later, bike messenger Jim wakes up naked on an operating table.

You know you’re in trouble from the genius opening sequence: vulnerability, tension, bewilderment, rage and blood – it marks a frantic and terrifying not-really-a-zombie film. (They were not dead, you see. Just super pissed off.)

Danny Boyle is one of cinema’s visionary directors, and he’s made visceral, fascinating, sometimes terrifying films his entire career – Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions, 127 Hours – but 28 Days Later is certainly his one true horror film. And it is inspired.

The vision, the writing, and the performances all help him transcend genre trappings without abandoning the genre. Both Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy are impeccable actors, and Naomie Harris is a truly convincing badass. Their performances, and the cinematic moments of real joy, make their ordeal that much more powerful.

Listen to the whole conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Fright Club: Feminist Horror

Horror’s come a long way from the days of nubile, sexually wayward teenage girls being victimized and/or rescued by men. Strong female characters have become staples of the genre, thanks in part to a rise in female writers and directors, but likely just as much credit goes to an audience unwilling to accept ridiculous stereotypes. Today we are joined by Senior Feminist Correspondent Melissa Starker as we pay tribute to half dozen of the best feminism horror has to offer.

6. The Descent (2005)

This spelunking adventure comes with a familiar cast of characters: arrogant authority figure, maverick, emotionally scarred question mark, bickering siblings, and a sad-sack tag along. And yet, somehow, the interaction among them feels surprisingly authentic, and not just because each is cast as a woman.

These ladies are not Green Berets who, unlike the audience, are trained for extreme circumstances. These particular thrill seekers are just working stiffs on vacation. It hits a lot closer to home.

More importantly, the cast is rock solid, each bringing a naturalness to her character that makes her absolutely horrifying, merciless, stunningly brutal final moments on this earth that much more meaningful.

Writer/director Neil Marshall must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.

5. The Woman (2011)

In horror movies, things don’t always go so well for the ladies. But sometimes we’ll surprise you, and your pervy freak of a son, as director Lucky McKee details in his most surefooted picture, the gender role horror show The Woman.

There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleese (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.

The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Writer Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. McKee has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see. Like most of Ketchum’s work, The Woman is lurid and more than a bit disturbing. Still, nothing happens in this film by accident – not even the innocent seeming baking of cookies – nor does it ever happen solely to titillate.

4. Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps picks at most of the same adolescent scabs as Carrie – there’s the underlying mania about the onslaught of womanhood accompanied by the monsterization of the female, which leads to a mounting body count.

Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and her sister Bridget (Emily Perkins), outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns). On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. It also proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches.

Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore.

3. Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott made a lot of great decisions with this film – the pacing, the look, the monster, and the casting. Especially the casting. Because the Ripley characgter was not specified on the page as a female – no character was – but Scott decided that a couple of these crewfolk would certainly be women by this point in human history. And history was made.

Ellen Ripley is just the next in charge. She’s just a solid, smart, savvy crewman. That’s what makes the film so special. In Aliens – an all around outstanding film – Ripley is out to save a little girl. She draws on her maternal instinct, which is a far more traditional and comforting reason for audiences to accept a female behaving this way. But in Alien, her gender really is not an issue. She happens to be the strongest, most ass kicking survivor on board.

2. The Babadook (2014)

A weary single mother contending with her young son’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior begins to believe that her son’s imaginary boogeyman may well be a monstrous presence in her house.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jonathan Demme did the impossible. He took the story of a flesh eater who helps the FBI track down a flesh wearer and turned it into an Oscar magnet. How did he do it? With muted tones, an understated score, a visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and a subtle but powerful use of the camera. The performances didn’t hurt, either.

Yes, it’s awesome, but how is it feminist? Mainly, through Jodie Foster’s character of Clarice Starling – our point of view character and the film’s hero. We are meant to identify with and root for this fledgling FBI agent as she navigates the horrifying mind of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (an epic Anthony Hopkins) in the hopes of stopping a serial killer (the under appreciated Ted Levin).

Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. (It’s also not a very flattering angle, which doesn’t hurt when you’re trying to make someone seem mean.) The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Starling and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals. In this way the film as a whole affords Starling all the respect and credibility the character proves to deserve.

Thanks to Senior Feminist Correspondent Melissa Starker for joining us today! Listen to the whole conversation on our podcast FRIGHT CLUB.





Fright Club: Best Horror 2000 – 2009

We have a new winner! Prior to this time travel cataloging exercise, we embraced the misunderstanding that the 1970s offered the best in horror. Nope. Pruning our list of the horror films released between 2000 and 2009 to just five proved honestly impossible. It was so hard! Too hard, actually, so we cheated: we are going to give a quick nod to the top 5 that didn’t make the list, and then we’re going to make #5 a tie. It had to be done!

So, our apologies, love and respect to the five best films that did not make this list: Eden Lake (2008), Frailty (2001), The Orphanage (2007), Martyrs (2008), and Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2004).

No, onto the tie!

TIE! 5. Wolf Creek (2005)

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, writer/director Greg McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.

If this sounds predictable and obvious to you, rest assured that McLean has plans to burst every cliché in the genre, and he succeeds on almost every level.

His first triumph is in the acting. Jarratt’s killer is an amiable sadist who is so real it’s jarring. You find yourself hoping he’s an actor.

A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.

TIE! 5. 28 Days Later (2002)

Activists break into a research lab and free the wrong fucking monkeys.

28 days later, bike messenger Jim wakes up naked on an operating table. What follows is the eerie image of an abandoned, desolate London as Jim wanders hither and yon hollering for anybody. In the church, we get our first glimpse of what Jim is now up against, and dude, run!

Prior to 28 Days Later, the zombie genre seemed finally dead and gone. But Danny Boyle single handedly resurrected the genre with two new(ish) ideas: 1) they weren’t dead, 2) therefore, they could move really quickly. Like Romero, though, director Danny Boyle’s real worry is not just the infected, it’s the living.

Danny Boyle is one of cinema’s visionary directors, and he’s made visceral, fascinating, sometimes terrifying films his entire career – Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions, 127 Hours – but 28 Days Later is certainly his one true horror film. And it is inspired.

4. The Ring (2002)

The Ring – thanks in large part to the creepy clever premise created by Koji Suzuki, who wrote the novel Ringu – is superior to its source material principally due to the imagination and edge of fledgling director Gore Verbinski. His film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric, and creepy as hell.

This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a video tape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.

The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Bunuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!

And Samara – from plump-cheeked cherub to ghastly figure crawling from your TV…yikes.

Sure, it amounts to an immediately dated musing on technology. But still, there’s that last moment when wee Aidan (a weirdly perfect David Dorfman) asks his mom, “What about the people we show it to? What happens to them?”

At this point we realize he means us, the audience.

We watched the tape! We’re screwed!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PkgRhzq_BQ

3. The Loved Ones (2009)

Writer/director/Tasmanian Sean Byrne upends high school clichés, maneuvering between gritty drama and neon colored carnage in a story that borrows from other horror flicks but absolutely tells its own story.

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 end of school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.

The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, deeply disturbed piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olB5Wrg8Sxc

2. The Descent (2005)

A caving expedition turns ugly for a group of girlfriends who will quickly realize that being trapped inside the earth is not the worst thing that could happen.

Writer/director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) must be commended for sidestepping the obvious trap of exploiting the characters for their sexuality – I’m not saying he avoids this entirely, but for a horror director he is fantastically restrained. He also manages to use the characters’ vulnerability without patronizing or stereotyping.

He makes even better use of the story’s structure. Between that and the way film and sound editing are employed, Marshall squeezes every available ounce of anxiety from the audience. Long before the first drop of blood is drawn by the monsters – which are surprisingly well conceived and tremendously creepy – the audience has already been wrung out emotionally.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers, but Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier. For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. Let the Right One In (2008)

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, coldest imaginable environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure.

Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar with a blond Prince Valiant cut falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.

This is a coming of age film full of life lessons and adult choices, told with a tremendous atmosphere of melancholy, tainted innocence, and isolation. Plus the best swimming pool carnage scene ever.

The unsettling scene is so uniquely handled, not just for horrifying effect (which it certainly achieves), but to reinforce the two main characters, their bond, and their roles. It’s beautiful, like the strangely lovely film itself.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Sarcrapagus

The Pyramid

by Hope Madden

The Pyramid could not have better timing. Had the film been released just a few weeks later it would missed its opportunity to rank among the very worst films of 2014.

To be fair, a really good creature feature is incredibly difficult to make, so you can hardly blame first time director Gregory Levasseur for not even trying. Instead he’s crafted a The Descent knock off that can’t rise above the caliber of a late night, made for cable TV movie.

His Egyptian horror sees a father and daughter archeologist team and the documentarians who want to film their discovery – a mysterious pyramid sitting hundreds of feet below the desert sands.

The bickering parent and child are played by American Horror Story’s Denis O’Hare and bad actress Ashley Hinshaw, respectively (but not respectably). That Hinshaw plays an archeologist seems less ludicrous only if you remember that Denise Richards played nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. But at least that was back when the Bond films embraced their campy awfulness. The Pyramid is just awful.

O’Hare serves an unseemly purpose in his American Horror Story roles, but he’s not a strong enough actor to elevate this dreck. Hinshaw’s worse, and Christa Nicola is community theater bad as the documentarian risking life and cameraman for that elusive Emmy.

The only castmate to acquit himself with any level of respectability is former Inbetweener James Buckley, who still struggles mightily with this script.

An aside: When you’re writing a screenplay and you’ve trapped all your characters with unnamed beasties in a labyrinthine catacomb hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, you may want to limit your use of the lines “we have to get out of here” and “we need to find a way out of here” to fewer than 200 instances apiece. It sort of goes without saying.

Oh, yes, and the beasties – if you squint and pretend they are ill-conceived but earnest odes to Ray Harryhausen and not simply weak, uninspired, fake looking props … Basically, it’s just too much work to have to pretend they don’t suck. Like the movie itself. It’s best just to accept it.

Verdict-1-0-Star