Halloween Countdown, Day 13: Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek (2005)

There have long been filmmakers whose ultimate goal is not entertainment; the idea being that art is meant to affect, not entertain. These filmmakers, from Sam Peckinpah to Lars von Trier, generally develop impenetrable indie credibility and a line of devoted, bawling fans. No one in recent memory has applied this ideology to horror cinema as effectively as writer/director Greg McLean with his Outback opus Wolf Creek.

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing the tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. With Wolf Creek, it’s as if McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.”

A quick glimpse of a map of Australia points out that nearly every city with a population higher than that of an Ohio State University dorm is along the coastline. McLean explores the isolated beauty of this vast, empty middle with spectacularly creepy results.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, 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.

 
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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 True Crime Horror

“Inspired by a true story” is a tag line that has been used beyond the point of meaninglessness. If you google “true story horror movies,” Dracula will come up, for lord’s sake. But there are some films that can take true events and mine them for the psychological underpinnings that chill us all. Here’s a list of our five favorites.

5. Stuck (2007)

A nasty tabloid feature boasting both gallows humor and blood by the gallon, Stuck is an underappreciated gem from director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). Mena Suvari plays a role based on a real life woman who, inebriated, hit a man with her car. The victim became lodged in her windshield. She chose to park her car in the garage and wait for the man to die rather than face the consequences and save his life.

While this sounds unbelievable, the fact that it’s based in true events helps the story build credibility. Stuart’s direction makes the most of the mean laughs available given the subject matter, never taking the situation too seriously, but never treating the victim’s predicament as an outright joke, either.

More impressive, though, is the commitment the cast brings to the proceedings. Suvari offers almost uncalled for nuance and character arc, while Stephen Rea’s crumpled, hangdog appearance belies an intestinal fortitude the driver didn’t see coming.

This is a wild movie, and one that’s far more watchable than the premise may suggest. Like any tabloid trash or car accident, you know you shouldn’t watch, but you just can’t look away.

4. Wolf Creek (2005)

Though Greg McLean wrote the story for Wolf Creek years before the film was made, by the time he polished the screenplay he’d blended in elements from two different Aussie marauders. Ivan Milat was a New South Wales man who kidnapped hitchhikers, torturing and killing them in the woods. Much closer to the time of the film’s release was the case of Bradley John Murdock. He had a tow truck, forced two British tourists off the road, murdering one while the other escaped. Wolf Creek’s actual release was delayed in the northern part of the country where Murdock’s trial was still going on.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, 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. The two different murderers influenced McLean’s tale and Jarrett’s character amiable sadist, but it’s at least comforting to know that this isn’t 100% nonfiction.

3. The Snowtown Murders (2011)

First time filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s movie examines one family’s functional disregard for the law and hinges on the relationship between a charismatic psychopath and a quiet, wayward teen. Unfortunately, The Snowtown Murders mines a true story. John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties.

An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.

Daniel Henshall cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.

2. Compliance (2012)

Compliance is an unsettling, frustrating and upsetting film about misdirected and misused obedience. It’s also one of the most impeccably made and provocative films of 2012 – a cautionary tale that’s so unnerving it’s easier just to disbelieve. But don’t.

Writter/director Craig Zobel – who began his career as co-creator of the brilliant comic website Homestar Runner (so good!) – takes a decidedly dark turn with this “based-on-true-events” tale. It’s a busy Friday night at a fast food joint and they’re short staffed. Then the police call and say a cashier has stolen some money from a customer’s purse.

A Milgram’s experiment come to life, the film spirals into nightmare as the alleged thief’s colleagues agree to commit increasingly horrific deeds in the name of complying with authority.

Zobel remains unapologetically but respectfully truthful in his self-assured telling. He doesn’t just replay a tragic story, he expertly crafts a tense and terrifying movie. With the help of an anxious score, confident camera work, and a superb cast, Zobel masterfully recreates a scene that’s not as hard to believe as it is to accept.

1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989)

Like Snowtown Murders, released more than two decades later, Henry is an unforgivingly realistic portrayal of evil. Michael Rooker is brilliant as serial killer Henry (based on real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas). We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky.

What’s diabolically fascinating, though, is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.

Director John McNaughton’s picture offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. He confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. It’s a genius technique given the subject, a serial killer who confessed to as many as 3000 killings, most of those discredited as fiction. His film is so nonjudgmental, though, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

Fright Club: Best Australian Horror

Thank you to Senior Aussie Correspondent Cory Metcalf for co-hosting our salute to Australian horror (and forgive our stupid jokes about Vegamite and Men at Work)! In the last decade his native land has become a powerhouse in the genre, boasting inspired, wicked, twisted efforts that range from unsettlingly authentic to weirdly, darkly comical. Here are our favorites.

5. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)

It is hard to do something fresh and interesting with a zombie film, but director Kiah Roache-Turner has done it. Writing with brother Tristan, Roache-Turner takes pieces and parts of the basic zombie myth as it’s evolved over countless films, shows, comics and video games, and woven it together with an audaciously Aussie sensibility.

Barry (Jay Gallagher) gets a call in the middle of the night from his artist/badass sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey). The zombies are here.

Barry ends up on the road with an assortment of survivors and begins the search for his sister, who’s having one hell of an adventure on her own.

Like the best in the business, Roache-Turner follows Romero’s lead when it comes to trusting the government. Zombies are more principled. But Wyrmwood mixes interesting new ideas with some of the stronger genre tropes to create a novel, often funny, action-packed film that gets creepy as hell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgo0ZWlK4pk

4. Snowtown (The Snowtown Murders) (2011)

John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.

Director Justin Kurzel seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. Ironically, this less-is-more approach may be why the movie leaves you so shaken.

An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.

Daniel Henshall (also in Babadook) cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcoCTA2IZ7c

3. Wolf Creek (2005)

There have long been filmmakers whose ultimate goal is not to entertain an audience; the idea being that art is meant to affect, not entertain. These filmmakers, from Sam Peckinpah to Lars von Trier, generally develop impenetrable indie credibility and a line of devoted, bawling fans. No one in recent memory has applied this ideology to horror cinema as effectively as writer/director Greg McLean with his Outback opus Wolf Creek.

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing our tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. With Wolf Creek, it’s as if McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.”

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, McLean follows happy backpackers who 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.

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.

2. The Loved Ones (2009)

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 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.

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.

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

1. The Babadook (2014)

Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

It’s a simple premise, and writer/director Jennifer Kent spins her tale with straightforward efficiency. There is no need for cheap theatrics, camera tricks or convoluted backstories, because Kent is drilling down into something deeply, frighteningly human.

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.

Listen to the whole conversation on the Fright Club Podcast.

Fright Club: Road Trip Horror

It’s summer time! Maybe you’ve gotten it into your head to pack up the family truckster and set off on an adventure, take a road trip? Well, we’re here to talk you out of it. Whether it’s Joy Ride or Wrong Turn, Brotherhood of Satan or Race with the Devil, or any one of the films on this list, if there is one thing our research has shown us, it’s that we’re staying safe at home this summer.

5. The Hitcher (1986)

Baby faced C. Thomas Howell – still a star in 1986 – finds himself falling asleep behind the wheel as he drives a car from Chicago to San Diego. In a torrential downpour, he picks up a hitchhiker – the effortlessly terrifying Rutger Hauer.

Hauer’s John Ryder immediately creeps you out, and his peculiarly sinister nature bounces beautifully off Howell’s slack jawed innocence. Hauer goes on to do very bad things, especially to truck stop heroine Jennifer Jason Leigh. Yikes.

First time director Robert Harmon does a nice job of ratcheting up tension by exploring the calm surrounding Howell’s shaken character: the roadside, the townies, the slumbering mountains on the horizon, and in particular, Hauer’s serene psychopath. The discrepancy fosters an anxiety in the audience, and though Howell’s crybaby driver Jim Halsey makes consistently idiotic decisions, he’s so convincingly innocent that we forgive him.

4. Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg was just 25 years old when he directed this taut thriller about mysterious road rage.

Dennis Weaver stars as a salesman on a business road trip who finds himself terrorized by the driver of a big rig. Based on Richard Matheson’s short story that sprang from a real-life incident, the film shows young Spielberg’s filmmaking instincts were already razor sharp. He rachets the tension early and often, knowing that our fear for the life of the salesman becomes even greater when mixed with the frustration of not knowing why he is being targeted.

Originally produced as a TV movie of the week, Duel eventually received a limited theatrical run, and it is flush with all the elements of a winning big screen pulse-pounder.

3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad Max, Hills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.

A suburban American family on a road trip takes an ill-advised “short cut” through this New Mexican desert to find themselves the targets of a family of inbred mutants’ blood lust.

The Hills Have Eyes – Craven’s original or Alexandre Aja’s 2006 reboot – is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated.

In fact, Craven’s greatest triumph is in creating tension via a plot device so unreasonably gruesome no audience would believe a film could go through with it. The freaks kidnap a baby with plans to eat her. But by systematically crushing taboo after taboo, the unthinkable becomes plausible, and the audience grows to fear that the baby will actually be eaten. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you’d want to share with your mom, but in terms of genre control, it is pretty good.

2. Wolf Creek (2005)

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing our tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. With Wolf Creek, it’s as if writer/director Greg McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.” McLean explores the isolated beauty of this vast, empty Australian middle with spectacularly creepy results.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, 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 (a startlingly horrifying, utterly perfect John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.

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.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

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 pick up a hitchhiker, played with glorious insanity by Edwin Neal. The Hitchhiker is part of a family of cannibals, and the youths will eventually stumble upon their digs.

It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The 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. He was 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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs3981DoINw

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.

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Halloween Countdown, Day 13

Wolf Creek (2005)

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing the tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. No one in recent memory has applied this ideology to horror cinema as effectively as writer/director Greg McLean with his Outback opus Wolf Creek. It’s as if McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.”

A quick glimpse at a map of Australia points out that nearly every city with a population higher than that of an Ohio State University dorm is along the coastline. McLean explores the isolated beauty of this vast, empty middle with spectacularly creepy results.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, 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.