Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

Reading Roger Ebert’s take on The Hitcher (along with the general critical response to the film) I was quite taken aback by the lashing Robert Harmon’s film took in the 80s. Receiving a rare zero stars from Ebert, he notes that the film was “diseased and corrupt”. His justification for such a reading is dubious at best, though superbly written – such is the case when I disagree with the critic. But given the universal agreement to the film’s poor quality, I thought it the opportunity to champion for its worth. And this goes without noting Rutger Hauer’s remarkably sinister performance – which seems to be considered the film’s saving grace.

Sinister would be an apt word to describe The Hitcher. It’s a film that does not attempt to redefine the theology of horror proposed by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but rather, instills a deeper psychological aspect to a killer-victim relationship that extends beyond Stockholm syndrome. Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red (responsible for the excellent Near Dark) establish the stakes quickly and mount the tension exponentially – Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) drives down a stretch of road. He’s heading to San Diego. But as the night comes, he becomes overwhelmed with exhaustion – he’s sleeping at the wheel. After a near-accident, he picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) – he’ll be doing his good deed and have someone to converse with to keep him awake.

Obviously, this is where the film plunges into its larger narrative purpose. But it’s the way that Harmon and Red go about constructing their narrative that is so impressive. What most critics ignored is the possibility that the film functions as an existential nightmare- any claim of corruption are unfounded when considering this is a quest that takes place within the human psyche and outside of the realm of reality. The situation itself is presented in a manner that is over-the-top and ridiculous, but horrific nonetheless. With a psychotic character like Hauer chasing after you, the film plays like No Country for Old Men (2007), with the stakes being one of adolescent growth.

C. Thomas Howell as the central victim was a stellar casting decision in that we have a youth who is very much defined by his boyishness. A film like The Outsiders (1983) has this on display, with Howell’s innocence and general helplessness being flaunted. In The Hitcher, Howell initially plays into this type – he’s naïve and hopeful. He treks to San Diego in hopes of a future that mirrors that of a Hollywood picture. What his journey in The Hitcher serves to represent is one of growth – he develops as a character that is shaped by his experiences. The trauma he encounters in the picture is one of such savage brutality, but the underlying current to all of this is that he needs to overcome and defend himself from the violence of the world. Jim Halsey’s trip from Chicago to San Diego is his nightmarish trial – his youth and innocence are brutally stripped away from him, wherein his hardened adult self takes shape.

Hauer’s existence throughout the film is one that the film teases from time to time. Throughout most of The Hitcher, Hauer and Howell tend to share the screen with only each other – Harmon makes it a point to have secondary characters leave the frame or the scene when the two are within each other’s presence. It serves to add to Hauer’s domineering aura, but begs to question the psyche of its central protagonist. The unreality of the situation lends one to believe that he is indeed living a nightmare.

I’ve omitted particular aspects of the film that I cannot defend with the same vigor. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is largely forgettable and doesn’t really offer much in terms of upping the ante for the protagonist or antagonist. Ebert uses her character as the source of corruption and moral decay for the film – she is subject to one of the greater examples of violence, but I certainly disagree with the impact that her death has on the whole picture. Her death resembles a larger allegorical pathway – Howell’s character decides between extinguishing one life for another. If anything, the scene reflects whatever remains of his youthfulness – he refuses to seek ultimate vengeance. In that, he is punished by Hauer’s satanic character. It’s a difficult allegory to embrace, particularly because Harmon and Red seem to bring in a sense of reality to the whole situation. It’s that reality that hinders my ability to embrace The Hitcher as a masterful work, but despite its final act inconsistencies, the film is remarkably entertaining and incredibly rich in detail.

Rating: 8/10

The Dead (John Huston, 1986)

Interesting would be the word of choice to describe John Huston’s final film. Being familiar with his early work (The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)), I haven’t explored his remaining catalogue. With The Dead, I was initially taken aback by how incredibly different it was from the other two films mentioned. Both Falcon and Sierra Madre are undoubtedly male works – their perspectives are deeply entrenched within the male framework, wherein Huston deconstructs notions of bravado and greed with great insight. Such deconstruction is refreshing, in that they illustrate the kinks in the hegemonic armor. But with The Dead, its Altman-esque ensemble doesn’t promote the idea of male hegemony ever being in place. Perhaps it could all be read in the title- the hegemony is dead.

Retrospectively speaking, it’s fairly clear what The Dead refers to. Though it’s quite amusing that Huston never really addresses what the dead means up until the end, wherein Gabriel (Donald McCann) passionately mulls over distressing news from his wife, Gretta (Anjelica Huston). But before I get into that, Huston positions us at a Christmas party, where Gabriel and Gretta meet with friends and family. The event is boisterous and festive, with Gabriel’s family regaling everyone with stories, poems, and music. It’s a lovely scene that Huston frames; a very Irish and traditional setting, with characters moving in and out of the frame in a way that would have made Robert Altman proud. We never escape the confines of the household – its set-up very much like a stage play, wherein we move from the entrance, to the stairs, to the living room, to the dining room. We rarely retreat from one locale within of the household from the other – it’s as if everyone arrives, enters the living room, and dines in the dining room at the same time.

As the festivities move to dinner, we shift tone, with Huston embarking upon more serious territory. What was once joyous now carries a level of solemnity, as Gabriel toasts his aunts, whilst acknowledging that their time is slowly reaching an end point. At the table is a drunken Freddy (Donal Donnelly), who holds the dubious honor of always making a fool of himself at every get-together – Freddy’s mother is embarrassed by her son’s antics. Meanwhile, Gretta seems detached from the whole scene- she is obviously thinking about something – someone- and it’s eating away at her until she finally reveals it to Gabriel.

The film’s runtime is consumed largely by people gathering and enjoying each other’s company, even if there are some lingering thoughts that persist within the characters minds. But there’s a section of the film that feels so terribly unfocused and prolonged- as the dinner guests depart, I sensed the disunity amongst them, as if pleased to escape into their own lives. It was difficult to accept such an outright contradiction to what I perceived from the onset of the film. Of course, that all sort of sheds light on the meaning behind Gretta’s speech, which brings about more questions than answers. And that’s what The Dead does so admirably – it questions one’s placement in the world in relation to those they love. Here’s a film that I envision I will only grow to hold dearer to me as time goes on – and once I give it another look.

Rating: 6/10

Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)

What makes Something Wild so interesting is the way it presents its ideas, and subsequently, how an audience assimilates to them. Demme’s film thrusts the audience headfirst into the rambunctious world of its characters, and only adjusts for your comfort at some point in the middle. And even as one begins to gather what the characters are about and the motives behind their questionable actions, the irking sense that something dark looms is a constant.  Its idiosyncratic pressure from characters and the surroundings essentially substitutes traditional notions of human psychology for a broader social critique of what it means to be married and the ramifications of perceived social identity.

Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) sits in a New York restaurant. His suit and tie make him stick out in the sea of blue-collar workers. Is there a sense of entitlement here when he decides to skip out on a check? Or perhaps his intentions lend themselves to more of a personal thrill – the titillation of doing something illegal? Either way, he’s caught not by the cashier, but a young woman who goes by the name Lulu (Melanie Griffith). Sporting a fake black wig reminiscent of Marcia Wallace is Pulp Fiction, she commands the easily swayed Charlie. The motivation that drives these two characters is unknown at this point of the film, and therein makes it hard to buy what Demme’s selling between the two. But looking at this opening act in Something Wild retrospectively, it makes sense. In fact, it’s actually a rather impressive way to help define the impulsiveness of one character while building upon the subservience of another.

The two travel down their path, drinking, having sex, and generally embracing a life of personal satisfaction. But Lulu (who we later discover is named Audrey) has a purpose in having Charlie with her – she wants to bring him home to her mother and show him off at her high school reunion. While handled rather light-heartedly, there’s a sense of melancholy in these actions, as Charlie represents a form of stability – the man who has his life together – these are virtuous traits that are sorely missing from Audrey’s life. If Something Wild proves anything, it’s that appearances are deceiving, as each character has a darkness inside of them that comes to a head when Charlie and Audrey encounter Ray (Ray Liotta).

Something Wild is an apt description for the film as a whole, but Something Off could work too. The film doesn’t work entirely, especially as it begins to creep toward its dark conclusion. The social critique of Driggs being financially successful whilst mingling with those in a lesser economic spectrum is dismissed, instead replaced by a more visceral chase and action sequence. It’s entertaining, no doubt, but it also hinders the film’s larger ideas from being fulfilled. The soundtrack selection, a mesh of The Feelies and David Byrne is also particularly glaring, though that almost excusable given the era. Perhaps I’m being a bit too particular, but these aspects weren’t things I could easily embrace, and therefore removed me a bit from the whole of the film.

Rating: 7/10