Oct. 25, 2007

Need More Fear in Your Life This Halloween?

If the daily headlines aren’t scary enough – wars, fires, super germs, rising oceans – then slip into your local theater for a blood-curdling two or three hours. Horror movies, from rambling monsters to torturers to psychos, remain ever-popular, especially during this Halloween season.

Poster for Night of the Living DeadAnd what is the attraction? SMU horror flick experts Rick Worland and Kevin Heffernan offer some insights and a list of rare favorites.

“The successful horror film is similar to a nightmare," says Worland, chair of SMU’s Division of Cinema-Television and author of The Horror Film. "In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argued very famously that all dreams are forms of self-communication about our deepest fears and desires. So, the monsters in horror films – human or otherwise - are easily seen as symbolic of what we fear most.”

“The horror genre is traditionally held in low regard, at least in public by arbiters of taste and morality," Worland continues. "However, horror often achieves its greatest impact when it exposes or flaunts cultural taboos. For fans, there is often a thrilling sense of partaking of something that is low, vulgar, and offensive to paternalistic authority.”

For those who want to get beyond such popular horror films as Jaws and The Exorcist, Heffernan, associate professor of Cinema-Television and author of Ghouls, Gimmicks and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business, recommends the following, which are "less familiar but which hold untold pleasures for those lucky enough to see them."

  • Poster for FreaksFREAKS (1932) MGM tried to imitate the success of Universal's DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN by giving Tod Browning, director of DRACULA, complete freedom to make a horror film of his own choosing, and he cast real-life circus sideshow performers in a tale of adultery, murder, and revenge on the carnival circuit. Audiences literally fled theaters in shock and revulsion upon its initial release.
  • THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) Producer Val Lewton was responsible for a number of restrained, atmospheric horror masterpieces for troubled studio RKO during the 1940s including CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1944 - an adaptation of JANE EYRE set among Haitian voodoo practitioners) and this film about a suicidal lesbian involved with a mysterious cult in wartime New York city.
  • EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959) directed by Georges Franju. French art cinema meets surgical horror as an insane surgeon kidnaps young women as unwilling skin donors to restore the beauty of his horribly disfigured daughter, played by Edith Scob wearing a wax mask showing only her wide, sad eyes.
  • Poster for The Brain That Wouldn't DieTHE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962) Glorious and sleazy American drive-in variation on EYES WITHOUT A FACE in which an insane surgeon keeps his wife's decapitated head on a dish in his lab while he cruises strip clubs and modeling agencies for unwilling body donors to restore his horribly decapitated wife. Meanwhile, the mysterious and unseen "thing in the closet" grows angry and restless. A baby-boomer late night TV favorite.
  • CASTLE OF BLOOD (1963). One of the most delirious and delightful of the early 1960s Italian vampire films starring the cadaverous and beautiful Barbara Steele. A journalist wagers that he can survive a night in a supposedly haunted castle. All who had died in the house (and there are plenty) come back to re-enact their deaths and claim him as one of them. Shadowy, expressionist cinematography and operatic tableaux of adultery, necrophilia, and bisexuality abound.
  • FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). A nihilistic late-sixties re-imagining of the Frankenstein myth with Peter Cushing as a suave, cold, Josef Mengele-like Baron Frankenstein. One of British Hammer Films' finest moments.
  • MARTIN (1977). Director George Romero followed the hugely successful NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) with a series of highly experimental films updating horror myths of witchcraft and vampirism to the modern American landscape. MARTIN is the boldest of these, recounting the story of a young, shy sexual psychopath who may or may not be a ninety year-old vampire plaguing a dying Pennsylvania steel town.
  • ALICE SWEET ALICE (1977). A story of murder, tortured family dysfunction, and teenage-onset mental illness set against the deranged and repressive background of lower middle-class religious extremism. Brooke Shields receives top billing as a murder victim, but the real star is the young Paula Shepard, who plays the title thirteen year-old protagonist with tenderness and fury.
  • Poster for ManiacMANIAC (1981). The most repellent, misogynistic, and claustrophobic of all of the early eighties Stalk and Slash horror films. Character actor Joe Spinell (THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER) stars as a schizophrenic NYC serial killer who scalps his female victims and affixes their remains to department store mannequins strewn around his filthy apartment. Gore effects maestro Tom Savini designed the murders and is featured in a cameo role as a particularly unlucky victim of the maniac.
  • SLUGS (1988). Get out the barf bags. 1950s-style mutant invasion horror meets eighties Grand Guignol full-stop gore. Industrial waste turns millions of bloated, slimy ground slugs into fanged flesh eaters. And you can't run away, because they leave that darned slippery goop everywhere!
  • CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987). Hong Kong supernatural cinema left Hollywood far behind in this wild horror romance martial arts comedy. A young scholar tries to rescue his lover, a beautiful female ghost, from an evil tree demon, and she tries to keep him being from eaten by her vampire women in waiting. The final twenty minutes is a hallucinatory barrage of martial arts and ingenious special effects as our hero is chased through the woods by a giant tongue that is hundreds and hundreds of feet long.
  • CURE (1997) director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) burst onto the international scene with this horrific and densely layered investigation of a series of savage killings in Tokyo in which an "X" is carved into the necks of all of the victims. Like many Asian horror films of the 1990s, CURE successfully integrates the moody, character-driven horror of 1950s and 1960s models with shocking graphic violence. Unlike other Japanese horror hits, however, it was never remade in Hollywood because the story was impossible to dumb down for American audiences.
  • Poster for A Tale of Two SistersA TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003). Based on a Korean folk tale, director Kim Ji-Woon's story of two sisters and their relationship to their hated stepmother and ineffectual father is shocking, gruesome, and too emotionally complex and narratively dense to absorb in one viewing. Glorious cinematography highlights the hues of the "Red Lotus" and "White Lotus" sisters of the story's Korean title.



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