First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest. True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years. As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could. Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while. People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread. So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.
While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:
Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did. She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke. My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences. Also, the ending – oh, the ending!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy. Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre. The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions. Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.
Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional. I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps. Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence. Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot. All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.
Recommended with caveats:
Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project. Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor. Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological. The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse. I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.
The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism. The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone. The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great. Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing. For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit. I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper). So glad your career is taking off.
Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film. And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack. She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain. Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.
YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible. Like, really, really terrible. But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost. A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever. As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues. It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?” Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane. The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.
Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series. Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC]. Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC. I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses. The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.
Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.
Not all zombie movies are scary. In a way, zombies are fundamentally not scary. They are slow, uncoordinated, and mindless; in other words, easy to run away from, easy to fight, and you don’t have to worry about outsmarting them. Not even the filmmakers take them all that seriously in many cases, offering the movies purely as vehicles for creative kills and cheap-looking dismemberment gags. (Any movie featuring strangulation via entrails is cool by me. Bonus points for a character strangled by his own entrails.)
But zombies can be frightening for a lot of obvious reasons: many of us are still squeamish about death, dead bodies, and putrefaction. The undead also trigger our fears of disease, pandemic, chaos, and apocalypse. However, what really freaks me out in a good zombie film is the “Uncanny valley” factor.
Quick primer: The word “uncanny” refers to a concept loosely defined as “the opposite of familiar” (or the German word “unheimlich”). The term “Uncanny Valley” was coined in reference to robots and how they fit on a spectrum of human-like qualities. The theory is that we find comfort and familiarity in robots that have a certain amount of human traits (body shape, limbs, facial features), up until the point where it looks too life-like. Because we can sense that this life-like machine is still something less than human, the disparity triggers our fear and revulsion. The robot is familiar in form, yet at the same time completely alien to us.
The concept of Uncanny Valley applies to zombies quite easily: as much as they look like us, they are not us. Not anymore. The horror factor is even higher if the zombie used to be your wife, mother, boyfriend, or child, because the degree of familiarity heightens the disconnect between who they were before and what they have become.
Zombie movies play on the same fears as movies about madmen (nobody home, nothing to reason with) and ghosts (used to be human). We can empathize with our fellow living humans who are sound of mind, but when the dead rise, vacant of their former personalities, all bets are off.
Further note: there’s some controversy among horror nerds about what is considered a “true” zombie. Many people cite Romero’s rules: zombies are truly dead, show little to no evidence of brain activity, and move slowly. Additionally, in Romero’s films, people can reanimate after death, regardless of whether they were bitten or infected by another zombie. However, I believe the concept of infection is at the heart of zombie mythology; this means I’m willing to include films like 28 Days Later and [REC] in the subgenre, despite the fact that these are really plague stories, with infected people who are technically alive, somewhat conscious, and extremely spry.
A smattering of zombie movies that are interesting:
[REC] is a tense, tight Spanish film about a television reporter and her cameraman who get trapped in an apartment building during a deadly outbreak. This movie has one of the most terrifying endings I’ve ever seen. The American adaptation, Quarantine, just doesn’t have the same punch, even though it’s essentially a shot-by-shot remake. [REC] 2 is a decently scary follow-up, and even Quarantine 2 (not actually a remake of [REC] 2, weirdly) is a pretty good time, albeit in a different way.
Nazi zombies. I shouldn’t have to say anything else, but this is an enjoyable Norwegian film that doubles as a “cabin in the woods” type story about a group of students who go on a skiing trip and get picked off one-by-one. Entrail and toilet humor abounds.
Rammbock: Berlin Undead
This German zom-rom-com (sort of like Shaun of the Dead) is short – barely an hour long – and fun. Not too groundbreaking, but solid and entertaining.
Shaun of the Dead
Duh. The gold standard for horror comedy, because it works as commentary on zombie tropes while making use of them successfully.
This movie didn’t really work for me as it did for others, but the premise is interesting: the zombie plague is spread through language, and a radio DJ finds himself at the center of the maelstrom. Action is scarce, since most of the film takes place inside the radio station, but the atmosphere is creepy and the situation intriguing.
I had a hard time including this one because it’s pretty nasty and, depending on your tolerance for disturbing shit, thoroughly reprehensible. Two teenage boys stumble upon a zombie woman tied up in an old mental hospital and have to decide what to do about her. To say that what follows is kinky gives kinkiness a bad name. The movie is fascinating in a trainwreck kind of way, and it either comments on misogyny or revels in it. Also, I’m glad that Noah Segan (Looper), who has been effectively douchy in indie films like this and Brick, is finally getting more mainstream attention.
Finally, I continue to defend the remake of Dawn of the Dead.