Marcus' Halloween Horror Movie Recommendations Part 2: Electric Spookaloo!
It's officially Halloween and it's time for part 2 to my alternate horror movie recommendations. There are only 4 this time, but seriously, how many movies can you watch in a night anyway? Hopefully, you'll find a couple of films you can enjoy by yourself, with friends, or with all the blood thirsty voices inside of your head!
90s Meta Horror Pick
What you usually watch: Scream (1996)
What I recommend: Popcorn (1991)
There's no denying that Scream rejuvenated the slasher genre in the mid-1990s by adding a self-referential humor to a tired trope while making a damn good scary movie, but it's certainly not the first horror film of the decade to poke fun at the genre it's embracing. Popcorn is populated by the same kind of self-aware young characters that grew up with the genre that you'd find in Scream, but it is more clever in the way it pokes fun at the older gimmicky William Castle style of horror movies represented in some of the film's best moments. Popcorn is more of a straight forward slasher film, but it's also a love letter to the kind of horror and sci-fi movies that never take themselves too seriously and allow the ridiculous aspects of the genre to shine through in some truly funny ways.
The film tells the story of a group of film students dealing with massive budget cuts in their department. In order to raise money to make up for the cuts and possibly get some funding for their student films, they hold a horror movie marathon at an old run down theater, including such frightening classics as Mosquito (not the brilliant 1995 film of the same name), The Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man, and The Stench. The students discover a short film called Possessor amongst the theatrical props to be used during the shows made by Lanyard Gates, the leader of a cult film group from the 70s, known for dropping acid to make Andy Warhol-esque avant-garde horror films and murdering his family and cult members during a live show. One of the students, Maggie (Jill Schoelen), has been dreaming of this man and has to figure out her relationship to him as her friends start getting picked off one by one by a disguised killer as the night progresses.
The three films within the film are one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. Like Mosquito, which is a 1950s 3D film about radiated mosquitoes attacking a desert army base, complete with a giant prop mosquito used to fly around the theater during the film (used for not one, but TWO deaths in the movie!). Or The Stench, which is a Japanese monster movie presented in Aroma-Rama, giving the audience nose pinchers and releasing different awful smells in the form of gases during the film. There are only a few select scenes of each faux-film in Popcorn, but they all add a welcome comedic break from an otherwise pretty standard slasher (and all provide entertaining kills for the characters).
Popcorn may not have revolutionized the genre or had anything particularly smart to say about horror movies and their impact on society, but it's a lot of fun and a good counterpoint to the all too self-aware Scream and would make for a great double feature.
Torture Porn Pick
What you usually watch: Saw (2004)
What I recommend: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Violent and gory “torture-porn” horror films have become a norm and even a favorite since the likes of Saw and Hostel hit the screens a decade ago in place of the standard slashers of the 80s and the tongue-n-cheek horror films of the 90s. The appeal being horrific bodily harm caused in a somewhat realistic manner. Sure, these films toss in a bit of the dramatic, they are movies after all, but what grabs people are these sickening acts that could happen to any of us in the wrong place at the wrong time as opposed to supernatural or invincible slashers. However, while these films depend on the most extreme and outrageous of violent acts for their scares, a small indie movie from 1986 outdid everything these movies would go on to do without intricate Rube Goldberg killing machines or many lingering close-ups of the kills being performed.
In the first 5 minutes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, we meet seemingly normal guy Henry (the amazing Michael Rooker in his first and career making performance) and we also see a trail of mutilated bodies he leaves in his wake. We don't see him killing anyone, we just see the aftermath of his sadistic urges inter-cut with him performing everyday activities like eating and driving with some quiet voice-overs recreating the murders taking place. In a lot of ways it's so much more frightening to see a guy you could run into anywhere going about his business like any of us and then seeing the madness he creates and having to imagine for yourself what he is capable of and the demented acts that seem to have no effect on his casual demeanor. We do eventually see Henry and his “buddy” Otis (Tom Towles) perform some carnage up close, but they punctuate the film in a powerful way instead of being the crutch used to hobble through a mediocre premise.
Henry is based upon many of the confessed (though many later proven false) murders of real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. This adds an even deeper level of discomfort, especially given the film's almost fly on the wall documentary style and having Henry be the protagonist throughout the film. There is no side of good represented and Henry gets no comeuppance by the end of the movie. You just see the abhorrent acts firsthand, delve a little into the psyche of this character, and get discarded like one of his victims, knowing the madness will continue beyond where the film leaves you. The violence in Henry is something that leaves you feeling foul and stays with you long after the viewing experience, unlike the multiple Saw films that you can barely tell apart after the numbing repetitive blandness of its gimmick.
Horror/Comedy in Wooded Terrain Pick
What you usually watch: Evil Dead 2 (1987)
What I recommend: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Tons of horror films can fall into the realm of horror/comedy due to incompetently laughable attempts at scares or stretching a 15 minute premise into feature length and filling in the blanks with whatever ridiculous bullshit flies out of someone's head. However, films that set out to make just the right combination of comedy and horror and actually pull it off well are few and far between. Evil Dead 2 is the perfect example of this and one of my all-time favorite films. It actually presents some freaky ideas and images while never taking itself too seriously and having fun with its low budget limitations. The more recent Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, while tackling the genre from a completely different angle, manages to pull off a charmingly hilarious yet sometimes creepy film in a similar vein while making light of the horror tropes that have become so common.
T & D starts out following a group of attractive young people taking a vacation in the woods, hitting every cliché possible. The group contains the jocks, the stoners, and the promiscuous females, even stopping by a rundown backwoods gas station complete with creepy kid pumping water outside. This is where they run into two hillbillies, Tucker and Dale (the fantastic team-up of Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk), who appear like every freaky-stereotype-horror-film-killer that you've seen in such fare as Wrong Turn (or one of its many sequels!), but are really just a couple of hapless not too smart nice guys on a vacation themselves. This movie turns usual horror convention on its head by making these hillbillies the misunderstood heroes, with the kids attacking them due to misguided assumptions based on horror movies with this kind of premise (and a hilarious misunderstanding as Dale tries to talk up one of the college girls while holding a scythe).
The two groups keep running into each other, with the kids dying off one by one due to their own stupidity and prejudices, and our heroes just trying to survive while not understanding the situation. For once, the stupid kids you want to die are the bad guys and the typical villains you usually root for are the ones to save the day. The film is consistently funny while also providing a few good scares, a surprising amount of heart, and an appropriate amount of gore. It would make for a great double feature with the also excellent Cabin in the Woods if you're up for a night of skewing the traditional horror elements.
Psychological Horror Pick
What you usually watch: The Shinning (1980)
What I recommend: The Cell (2000)
The Shinning is an incredible film. It's one of Kubrick's best, filled with iconic imagery and stellar performances. You'd be hard pressed to find anything on that level and my recommendation here is no substitute for what Kubrick created, but I do think it's one hell of a movie that has been overlooked and all too forgotten. The Cell is a really fucking weird movie, but it's really engaging and contains some beautiful imagery. It takes you deep into the mind of a serial killer well past the point of no return, as The Shinning oversaw the downfall of the family unit and Jack Torrence's decent into madness. The Cell definitely ain't Kubrick, but it's a riveting mind-fuck of a film that deserves your attention.
Social worker Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) is working with a new technology that allows her to enter the mind of her patients to work through their root problems. Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a schizophrenic murderer recently apprehended by the FBI after going into a comatose state. He has a new victim set up in a prolonged drowning chamber, due to drown in a matter of hours. The FBI bring Stargher to Deane in order to search his psyche and find out where his victim is before she dies a gruesome death like all the others. What follows is a grotesque journey that plays like a mix between What Dreams May Come and Hellraiser, with it playing out as entertaining as that sounds. The already damaged Catherine delves into the darkest realms of the human mind, trying to gain the trust of and outwit a killer in a nightmare of his making, while sifting through the empathy she feels towards the tortured souls she is used to working with.
This film contains great performances from all of the leads. Vincent D'Onofrio plays multiple dream-like versions of the killer throughout the film, all with varying levels of terrifying malice. Jennifer Lopez is actually really great in this, it's one of her few performances that I really enjoy (Out of Sight being the only other I can think of offhand). Vince Vaughn gets the short end of the stick as FBI agent Peter Novak, but still manages to give it his all and bring a few dimensions to an otherwise dull character. The strongest aspect of the movie is its sets, visuals, and makeup effects. Every scene in Stargher's mind is full of beautifully dreadful images as we move through the atrocious layers within, with the style and details entrancing you, despite some silly logistics to keep the story moving. It's like a psychopathic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman furiously masturbating into a cauldron of macabre stew, all forming into a unique style that makes up for somewhat sub-par writing.
So, there you are. It's Halloween and if you're anything like me (who doesn't get invited to parties and would rather watch horror movies alone in the dark than go to said parties I wasn't invited to anyway) then you might have a spooktacular night of movie watching with some of the films I've mentioned in this two part extravaganza! Or, you could go out, party, and maybe get laid...your call.