By Ezra Stead
I’ve decided not to get quite so carried away this time around, but as I said last year, October is my favorite month. Since I tend to watch a lot of horror movies year-round, in October I feel like I have to do something special, so I try to watch almost exclusively horror movies. I watched (or, in many cases, re-watched) a total of 22 before starting this article, and I’m far from finished. In the interest of actually recommending some movies before Halloween, I’m putting this out now, and in the interest of brevity, I’m cutting it down to ten recommendations, grouped together as double features (even though their availability varies a bit). Not all are horror movies, exactly, but I think you’ll agree they’re all on-theme for the season. Enjoy!
1. THE NIGHTMARE (2015) / A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985) – These two have a lot more in common than just a shared word in the title. Well, a little more, anyway. The Nightmare, the latest documentary from Room 237 director Rodney Ascher, explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, a condition that occurs in the transition between waking life and sleeping, and which is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. The film dramatizes such experiences as described by eight different people who suffer from them, making it the scariest documentary I’ve ever seen. By the end, though, it is not only scary and fascinating, but also rather profound and moving.
The late, great Wes Craven’s original masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street was partly inspired by a related sleep disorder, known as Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, and The Nightmare explores this connection. So, really, that 1984 movie would probably be an even better one to pair with Ascher’s documentary, but Freddy’s Revenge was the one I re-watched this month. Part of that was in anticipation of another, upcoming documentary, Tyler Jensen’s Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, which will explore the fascinating, mostly unintentional homoerotic subtext of the 1985 film. Part of it, though, was that it has always been a big favorite of mine, and certainly the most underrated entry in the series. In Freddy’s Revenge, the infamous Freddy Krueger represents the hidden homosexual impulses of young Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) as he struggles to repress them. This subtext and the film’s set design and practical effects elevate it, in my eyes, to a very high place in the series. It’s probably my second favorite one, after Craven’s original, of course.
2. THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1991) / THE FINAL GIRLS (2015) – These two just have a lot of fun with the tropes of the macabre. One of my fondest childhood memories was one day when I was eight, and my parents let my brother and I skip school to go with them to Barry Sonnenfeld’s feature film version of The Addams Family. I guess they were big fans of the TV show, of which I still haven’t seen much, but we’re all now big fans of the movie. Raul Julia and Angelica Huston have great chemistry and really seem to relish their roles as Gomez and Morticia, and Christopher Lloyd is also terrific, in probably his second most iconic role, as Uncle Fester. The whole ensemble is great, really, but Pugsley and Wednesday’s hyperviolent Shakespeare rendition has always been my favorite scene, and I’ve had a crush on Christina Ricci ever since (she was 11 at the time, so she’s actually older than me, so shut up).
The Addams Family doesn’t actually spoof anything as specific as the target of Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, which is 1980s slasher movies, particularly the Friday the 13th franchise. It’s sort of like The Cabin in the Woods-lite, in that it’s not as great or, ultimately, as dark as that masterpiece, but similar in tone and premise. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, even if its rules are a bit unclear compared to Cabin‘s, as a group of teens find themselves inexplicably trapped inside the fictitious movie Camp Bloodbath. One of them (Taissa Farmiga) is the daughter of one of the movie’s stars (Malin Ackerman), who is deceased in real life, so Farmiga gets the chance to reunite with her mother under crazy circumstances, which provides the movie’s emotional core. Mostly, though, it’s just really entertaining and funny, especially for even casual fans of the genre. Adam DeVine and Thomas Middleditch score the biggest laughs, though Angela Trimbur’s Adderall-addled third act is also a big performance highlight, and the whole movie is consistently clever and visually inventive.
3. RE-ANIMATOR (1985) / IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) – Two H.P. Lovecraft-inspired monstrosities from the guys who do them best. Stuart Gordon is the only filmmaker to consistently find success directly (though often loosely) adapting Lovecraft’s work, having directed three features from the horror master’s oeuvre, plus one of the best episodes of the anthology series Masters of Horror (2005’s Dreams in the Witch-House). His first feature, though, remains his best known, and for good reason. Based on Lovecraft’s short story, “Herbert West – Reanimator,” this is one of the greatest horror movies of the 1980s, a decade that was full of gruesome masterpieces. Jeffrey Combs delivers one of the creepiest performances of all time as the obsessive West, a medical student determined to bring the dead back to life. The results would be sickening if they weren’t so damned funny (yes, intentionally), and this remains one of the goriest movies of its gloriously practical effects-heavy time.
John Carpenter has never directly adapted Lovecraft, but his work is an obvious influence, as it has been on most of the horror landscape ever since his time (including the aforementioned Cabin in the Woods, as well as Carpenter’s The Thing). Nowhere in the legendary director’s body of work is this more evident than in In the Mouth of Madness, which is firmly set in a Lovecraftian universe, though it also gives some clear nods to Lovecraft’s most important successor, Stephen King. Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator on the trail of mysteriously vanished horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow, playing a character whose name is one of the more subtle nods to King). This movie masterfully blurs the lines of reality in some pretty scary ways, and it also has some wonderfully dark humor. Plus, there are some great monsters, and we all love monsters, right?
4. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) / YAKUZA APOCALYPSE (2015) – This month, I coincidentally watched two movies (one for the first time, the other for at least the fourth or fifth) that belong to an odd subgenre of which they may well be the only two entries: the vampire gangster movie. From Dusk Till Dawn is a longtime favorite of mine, ever since I first saw it as a teenager, which is probably its target audience. Fresh off the success of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino dug up an old script he had written and gave it to his buddy Robert Rodriguez, who had also just had a big hit with Desperado, to direct. Tarantino stars alongside George Clooney (in his first major movie role after becoming a TV star with ER) as a violent thief who becomes trapped, along with a family they’ve taken hostage, in a sort of vampire biker bar on the Mexican border. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, this movie feels like it’s split in half, with the vampires not arriving until nearly an hour in, and like Full Metal Jacket, the first half is arguably more interesting. Tarantino has said he was inspired by Stephen King’s tendency to spend a lot of time at the beginning getting to know his characters (Salem’s Lot comes to mind, for example), so that the horror is more effective later, and this is a good illustration of that idea. Harvey Keitel plays an especially interesting character as the head of the family unit taken hostage by Clooney and Tarantino, and once the vampire action gets going, the effects are really remarkable, a perfect mashup of the fertile imagination of Rodriguez and the incomparable skills of Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, who basically do all the best monsters and gore these days (including The Walking Dead).
People who complained about the structure of Pulp Fiction being confusing would likely have no idea what to make of Yakuza Apocalypse. Its structure is basically linear and chronological, but in other ways, it’s just batshit insane. In director Takashi Miike’s loony universe (in this movie, at least; he’s also known for Gozu, Ichi the Killer, and the relatively subdued Audition, among others), being bitten by a Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) vampire not only turns a person into a vampire, but into a member of the Yakuza as well. Fellow Yakuza members have blood that is low in nutrients, so soon everyone in town is a Yakuza vampire, and all-out war follows close behind. This movie is kind of a mess, no doubt about it, but it’s an awesome mess form a crazy, wildly prolific visionary who is clearly still challenging himself nearly 100 movies into his career.
5. THE FLY (1958) / PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) – It’s easy to see the connecting thread in this double feature; he’s right there on the screen. The legendary Vincent Price actually plays sort of a supporting role in The Fly, a movie I severely underrated the last time I wrote about it here. I do still prefer David Cronenberg’s remake, but I’d forgotten how dark and honestly scary the original gets, especially by the end. Its structure is also really interesting, letting its wildly original and fascinating science fiction premise gradually unfold as a murder mystery, and it explores the moral implications of justified murder in a pretty sophisticated way for what was, at the time, “just” a B-movie. As a kid seeing it for the first time, I think I was annoyed at how long it takes for the movie to get to the monster, but now I really appreciate the buildup. Director Kurt Neumann wisely leaves the giant fly head covered by a sheet for as long as possible, letting it become more terrifying than any special effect could ever be in our imaginations, and the ending of this movie is absolutely stunning, even after nearly 60 years of desensitization.
Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum has actually aged less well, despite being made more recently, and also being one of American International Pictures’ classier endeavors. Still, I’ve always really liked the look and feel of this one, with its Gothic set design and purple-saturated color palette, and of course, Price is in top form. Its story actually has more in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which Corman also adapted, than the original Poe story for which it was named, or, for that matter, with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, or Robert Aldrich’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with its central conspiracy to drive poor Price mad. There’s also an element of Poe’s Premature Burial, the self-explanatory title of which is a common theme in his work, which can be seen in the movie’s most memorable image. If you’ve ever seen this movie, you know the one I’m talking about; it’s incredibly haunting.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and occasional stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his first novel.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com