With Halloween on Saturday, the weekend crush is on for horror movies. So, break out the holy water, folks, and step away from the satanic hellfire, because over the past several weeks, more than 40 horror movies were revisited for this piece.
Because of space considerations, not all could be reviewed here, and some classics such as “The Exorcist,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dracula” were left off because most already know they’re great (and should be revisited if none of the below appeals). What follows is a broad sampling of other films — some familiar, some not so familiar, some festering well outside the fringe.
After all, the horror genre is one that can be enjoyed on two primary levels — for the fear it elicits when it’s done well or for the wild comedy it offers when it’s B-movie bad. With that in mind, the following are recommended:
“Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers”: Distilled camp. A horror movie with a Maine connection not associated with Stephen King. Northeast Harbor resident Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen (the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) is The Stranger, a cultish pimp who employs a bevy of topless hookers to help him sacrifice the unsuspecting. They use chain saws — well, of course they do — and are backed by an advertising slug that notes they charge an arm and a leg for their services. Ho, ho.
“The Fly” (1986): Kafka would have loved it. This fine remake of the 1958 original is a horror romance. It’s one of David Cronenberg’s best films, with Jeff Goldblum’s inventor-scientist Seth Brundle joining Geena Davis’ Ronnie in creating a heartfelt, B-movie gross-out. What the film creates in Seth’s unflattering transformation from human being to human-fly is as grotesque as anything in George Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” yet none of it is served with a trace of intended humor. Cronenberg and company are dead serious about their cautionary ideas about the abuse of science and technology. As Seth deteriorates into a mess of ticks, mandibles and twitches, the movie comes down to the nuances of Goldblum’s spot-on performance and the horror of what some will do with a loaded rifle in the name of love.
The dark side of “Hee-Haw.” Giant, prehistoric fish wreak havoc on hillbillies in a backwater bayou. Voodoo, decapitations and mutilations ensue. At times, the actors, covered in body parts and brain matter, can’t ignore the absurdity of the situations or contain their own amusement; they giggle through the gore. So will you.
One of the best. Unlike Rob Zombie’s two risible remakes, director John Carpenter got it right the first time — a slasher film needs more than a butcher knife and a boogeyman to be effective. It needs a main character worth rooting for, a plot that facilitates a suspension of disbelief and a spellbinding score that complements the creeps. In “Halloween,” we get it all, with Jamie Lee Curtis fending off masked madman Michael Meyers. A scream queen was born, but so was a lucrative series, none of which has matched this terrific original.
Who knew that studying in the French countryside could be so hazardous to your health? In the slasher film “High Tension,” college students Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn — yes, just Maiwenn) flee the city to cram for their upcoming finals in the presumed quietude of Alex’s country farmhouse. Trouble is, when they arrive, so does a homicidal maniac (Philippe Nahon) who brutally abducts Alex, but not before resourceful Marie slips into hiding with some rather sharp hardware at the ready. What ensues is director Alexandre Aja’s cinematic bloodbath. The movie is lean, mean and initially focused — it wants to repel you with gore and it might just succeed. The bizarre, fractured ending is a disappointment, so much so that some will wonder what Aja was smoking when he conceived it. Still, the ending shouldn’t negate what comes before it — a visceral thrill ride.
“Woodchipper Massacre”: So bad it hurts. So bad it’s good. So much for using only wood in a wood chipper. Three kids murder their rotten, mean-spirited aunt, chop her up, freeze her solid, and then put her assorted body parts through a wood chipper. Messy, horribly acted but puckish fun. Inspired a similar scene in “Fargo.”
Okay, so not a horror movie, per se, but a great party film if seen with the right crowd. It’s scary, terrifying, allegedly true. Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is cutthroat. She wields an ax. She serves raw meat to children. She devastates a garden. She uses bathroom cleanser as a weapon. Hell, she’d probably infect people with H1N1 if she had the opportunity. For good measure, she also provides a corpse — her own, waxen and blue in the film’s climactic scene.
Underrated. A fantastic haunted house movie without the gore or the cheap thrills. George C. Scott brings gravitas; director Peter Medak brings a tense mood. It’s a seance spectacle with a lone, antique wheelchair fueled by a spirit determined to murder. A forgotten classic. An enduring favorite.
“Motel Hell”:A drive-in staple when there actually were drive-ins. The film features a motel owner with a cannibalistic penchant for turning his guests into smoked meats. Don’t eat the jerky. In the garden is a nasty, buried secret. Onscreen is something more unsettling — Wolfman Jack in cameo. Love the pig’s head.
“Psycho” (1960 version):
Janet Leigh in the shower, with a knife in her back, her torso, the palms of her hands. As in so many Hitchcock movies, an undercurrent of sleaze runs through the movie, all of which was startling for the times. Anthony Perkins is a timid bird slavishly beholden to his mother — but he’s no caricature. His performance is a lark. Hitchcock exploited Leigh, sure, but he also made her a legend. Turns out she did well by that.
The undead in this low-budget horror show are relentless. With verve, they keep hammering away at the screen, eating and clawing their way into someone else’s oblivion — all thanks to a pesky little meteor shower in which aliens thumbed a ride to Earth. If the undead in this movie weren’t so physically hideous, they’d be perfect for a reboot of “The Apprentice” — they are that savage, that hungry, that obvious in their killer instincts. From the Australian brother team of Michael and Peter Spierig, the film’s pace lags at the start, but cult horror fans will appreciate the over-the-top gore and the two former beauty queens stewing in the subplot. In one scene, a pair of freshly lopped legs continue to walk with spine intact, a nice touch that creates an amusing diversion. So does some of the dialogue, which is just this side of camp. “Undead” doesn’t have the budget to be slick, so it has to rely on flashes of imagination to see it through. It does, and parts of the movie are fun, though it never escapes the sense that it wouldn’t exist without the efforts Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, George Romero, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg put forth before it.
“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”:
Bette Davis as a former starlet turned raging, delusional drunk — her face is the horror. So are her slippers, which cake across the floor. Joan Crawford is sister Blanche, wheelchair bound and terrified by Jane’s jealousy. Mind games uncoil. Dead careers struggle to reignite. Meanwhile, dead birds and dead rats are served for dinner. Audiences are served a feast.
“The Twisted Terror Collection”:
A rousing B-movie horror collection from Warner. Includes six films — John Carpenter’s 1978 television stalker movie “Someone’s Watching Me,” with Lauren Hutton in the lead, and Oliver Stone’s 1981 horror film “The Hand,” in which Michael Caine loses a hand to an auto accident — and the hand just won’t die! Also included are 1986’s “Deadly Friend” from Wes Craven, which he’d likely sooner wish to forget; 1973’s “From Beyond the Grave,” with Peter Cushing as a shifty antiques dealer; and 1981’s “Eyes of a Stranger,” with Jennifer Jason Leigh protecting her deaf and blind sister from a serial rapist. Finally, there’s 1992’s “Dr. Giggles,” which is about a mass murderer that stars nobody memorable, but which nevertheless features a title that gets to the heart of this holiday. Go and have a few laughs of your own.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.