The success of the original 1942 Cat People, a shadowy psychological horror film simmering with sexual repression, prompted RKO to request a sequel from producer Val Lewton. His solution was surprising and inventive: Curse of the Cat People (1944), a psychological drama with a child’s perspective and a twist of ghost story.
This story is centered on Amy (Ann Carter), the dreamy young daughter of hero (Kent Smith) of the original film and a young girl constantly in her own imagination, so distracted by butterflies and woodland creatures and stories of magic that the other children shun her. Left alone, she befriends the aged widow of the “haunted” manor in the neighborhood and conjures up a magical friend: the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon) from the first film.
More fairy tale than horror, this Irena is presented as a mix of imaginary friend (who materializes after Amy sees a photograph of Irena among her father’s things) in a gown fit for a storybook princess and benevolent spirit looking after a dreamy girl. It was a flop upon release, perhaps because audiences expected another horror film rather than a delicate fantasy, but is a tender and lovely tale of childhood innocence and imagination with poetic images created on a B-movie budget.
Basket Case (Arrow, Blu-ray) Ichi the Killer (Well Go, Blu-ray) Macon County Line (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) The Hidden (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
Basket Case (1982), the debut feature of filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, is a gruesome little cult indie-horror drama of brotherly love and righteous vengeance shot on location in the seedier sections of New York City.
Henenlotter was reared on the cheap horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis and other independent exploitation directors of the 1960s and 1970s and this is in many ways his tribute to the grindhouse horror films he loves, a low-budget monster movie with a creative twists and an embrace of the grotesque. The monster effects, a mix of puppets, models, and stop-motion animation, may look amateur today but there’s a loving B-movie attitude and a genuine sense of character and tragedy to the misshapen, fleshy, snaggle-toothed Belial, who sees Duane’s growing guilt and desire to connect to other people (notably a girl he’s fallen for) as a betrayal of their bond. A cult classic with an inspired twist on Cain and Abel.Kevin VanHentenryck shuffles through the low budget exercise in grotesquery and gore as Duane, the “normal” brother sent by his deformed, formerly-conjoined twin Belial to take revenge on the doctors who separated the two and left the blobby, grotesquely misshapen brother to die. Most of the effects are shrewdly just off screen, with spurts of blood and gnarly hand dragging the character out of view to feed our imaginations, and a few bloody corpses left in the aftermath (an exception is a pre-Freddy multiple impalement with scalpels).
Suspiria (Synapse, Blu-ray) The Cat O’ Nine Tails (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) Deep Red (Arrow, Blu-ray) Opera (Scorpion, Blu-ray) The Church (Scorpion, Blu-ray)
Dario Argento was the master choreographer of the distinctly Italian art of horror known as giallo, was a baroque, often sadistic kind of slasher movie that favors intricately-designed murder sequences and aesthetic beauty over logic. Call him the pop-art fabulist of the slasher movie set. Combining Hitchcockian camerawork, lush, over-saturated colors, rollercoaster-like thrills, and at times surreal situations, Argento could overcome the sadism and misogyny in his gallery of sliced and diced beauties with the sheer cinematic bravura and beauty of the sequences. In his best films Argento delivered murder as spectacle with razor-sharp execution and turned horror cinema into a dream-like spectacle with a dash of sexual perversity. Which may be why his films have a cult following but little popular interest in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.
Suspiria (Italy, 1977) was his only American hit, a stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of seventies Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet student in a creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria’s fame comes from operatic set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—one young woman dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things), another swimming through a room filled (for no explicable reason) with razor wire (the first Saw borrowed this idea)—and Argento’s dreamy cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He never really made sense, but in an era filled with masked brutes hacking up kids and co-eds, Argento brought a grace to the vicious business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Watch for Udo Kier in a supporting role.
Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.
Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.
An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.
Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.
The title of It Comes at Night (2017) sets certain expectations. What exactly comes at night? But the survival thriller from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, set sometime after the ravages of an unnamed and unexplained plague have ripped through the cities and sent survivors into the isolation of the wilderness, isn’t about monsters (human or otherwise) who hunt in the dark. It’s more insidious than that, which is what makes it so unsettling and unnerving.
Our first image is of man, diseased and unable to speak, expiring as figures hidden behind gas masks try to comfort his passing. It’s both tender and alienating, a teary farewell turned mercy killing by terse, protective Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Shults continues directing in that vein. Everything is off-balance, the familiar always on edge. Their country home in the lush green forest has been boarded up and turned into a fortress, the gentle days are under constant threat of pillager and armed invaders, and the nights are plunged in isolation where every sound is a potential attack. So when they catch a man breaking into their home (which, to anyone on the outside, appears abandoned), they have to make a choice whether to believe Will (Christopher Abbott) when he says he’s just trying to find water and shelter for his wife and young son.
The meditative and metaphysical horror cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa made him one of the masters of Japanese horror during its amazing cycle of surreal and nightmarish horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, but his films never really crossed over to the general audience in the U.S. His insidiously unsettling films were too slow and cerebral for traditional horror audiences while the “horror” tag kept away the kinds of viewers that would be in tune with his eerie tales of guilt and alienation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was never recruited by Hollywood, and so he remains known mostly to those viewers with a passion for Asian horror. Among those fans (and I count myself as one), Pulse (Japan, 2001) is embraced as one of his greatest works, perhaps his best.
Death Line (aka Raw Meat) (1972) – Gary Sherman directs this underrated (and for years largely unseen) British horror film about the last survivor of a literal underground clan (trapped in a subway construction cave in a century before) who emerges from his cave to hunt for food on the London Underground. Yes, it’s a cannibal film, but it’s also a startlingly tender film about a literal underclass abandoned by the world above, a story that roils in class division. It takes the death of an OBE to get the police looking into the spate of disappearances on the London Underground.
The killer, an unspeaking, primitive figure called the “Man” in the credits (Hugh Armstrong), is also in some ways the protagonist. Drooling and diseased, suffering from plague and malnutrition, he hunts the tunnels of the Underground for food for his dying mate (June Turner). Donald Pleasance steals the film as the unconventional, sarcastic Inspector assigned to the case and then meets his match in a single scene with Christopher Lee as an arrogant high class MI-5 agent. Not so David Ladd (son of Alan Ladd and brother of co-producer Alan Ladd Jr.) as an American in London and Sharon Gurney as his girlfriend and soon-to-be captive of the Man. Their self-involved manner and disdain for the lower classes stands in contrast to the purity of the underground couple but the film stumbles over their scenes together.
Apart from that, however, Death Line is a remarkable horror film.
The Stepford Wives meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in Get Out (2017), the directorial debut of writer / comedian Jordan Peele, a tricky and successful mix of social satire, modern horror, and savvy commentary on race as experienced by a person of color in a largely white society.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, a photographer with a promising career and a gorgeous, supportive girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), and after months of dating, he’s finally meeting the parents for a weekend stay. Her parents are white, liberal, and affluent, and on the drive over he finds out that she hasn’t told them that he’s black, which makes him a little uneasy. No worries, they are warm and welcoming, perhaps a little too overeager to make him welcome. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a chatty hugger who launches into his spiel of how he would have eagerly voted Obama in for a third term. Mom (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who seems to be sizing up all those suppressed feelings, a suburban Earth Mother who seems just a little too eager to hypnotize him. They make a point of just how much they don’t see color, which of course only accentuates how much he stands out in this upstate social pocket where the only other black faces are groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). They have been with the family so long they have become part of the family, explains Mom. Just maybe not quite in the way you assume.
You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.
Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.