Friday, October 30, 2009

My Favorite Horror Movies

I'm struggling to come up with a common theme in these five films. Some of them are great because they aren't as explicit in what they show. Encounter at Raven's Gate builds tension and doesn't let us down they way War of the Worlds did when it revealed the aliens. But others, like Re-Animator, are so explicit, it's delightful. On the other hand, Prince of Darkness succeeds as a horror movie because it takes itself so seriously. Near Dark takes a tired genre and makes it new with a decidedly un-gothic setting and chracters. Phantasm is an adolescent fantasy done well. Here, just before Halloween, are five of my favorite horror movies:
1. Prince of Darkness (1987, dir. John Carpenter)

Prince of Darkness came out a year after Big Trouble in Little China and featured a couple of the same actors -- Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. The plot was clever: an obscure Catholic order of monks in Los Angeles seeks help from physicists and ancient history scholars when a dark secret that they've guarded for more than two thousand years threatens to leak. Donald Pleasance (who will be familiar to horror fans as Dr. Loomis in 1978's Halloween, also by Carpenter) plays the head priest who goes to Howard Birack (played by Wong), a professor of theoretical physics at a public university. When Birack brings his students and some other professors to study the ancient secret in the church's tombs, bad things start to happen. Look for a cameo by Alice Cooper, playing a demonically possessed homeless man.

2. Re-Animator (1985, dir. Stuart Gordon)

Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, this gorey horror movie stars Jeffrey Combs, a great character actor who has played at least three species of aliens in the Star Trek franchise. Combs is Herbert West, a medical student who studied under a controversial doctor in Switzerland doing research on...re-animating dead tissue. After a public disgrace involving the death (and failed but near re-animation) of his mentor, he comes to a small town medical school in New England to finish his studies. Not happy being forced to abandon his mentor's research, Herbert West starts doing experiments, and his more conventional roommate, played by Bruce Abbot, is getting worried. This movie is disgusting, offensive, and hilarious.

3. Near Dark (1987, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Near Dark, one of the best, most stylish and understated vampire movies ever made, stars much of the cast of the previous year's Aliens. Lance Henriksen is the patriarch of a group of nomadic Southern vampires, with Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton as his wife and son. Their younger vampire daughter, Mae, played by Jenny Wright, meets Adrian Pasdar's Caleb in small town Oklahoma one evening. When she can't bring herself to kill him, he reluctantly joins their traveling killing spree. Never is the word "vampire" mentioned in this movie, nor do we really see much in the way of fangs. These vampires are refreshingly unbound by traditional vampire lore and baggage; they are Southern white trash. Despite that characterization, director Kathryn Bigelow (who later did Point Break and Strange Days) gave Near Dark an art film sensibility, as befitted her background -- she studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Whitney Museum.

4. Phantasm (1979, dir. Don Don Coscarelli)

This low-budget classic looked much better than it should have. Special effects like shiny silver flying spheres with retractable blades and drills were apparently thrown like baseballs and then played back in reverse. The story is set in a small town (as so many are). A boy witnesses strange goings on in the local cemetary after his parents die and discovers that the undertaker (played brilliantly by an actor named Angus Scrimm) is re-animating dead people, shrinking them down to half-size, then transporting them to a red planet with higher gravity for slave labor via a portal in the funeral home. Woah.

5. Encounter at Raven's Gate (1988, dir. Rolf de Heer)

This Australian movie is, on the surface, an alien encounter story. What makes it so great (unlike the recent remake of War of the Worlds, which was fantastic up until a certain point) is that we never really see the aliens. Steven Vidler plays an ex-con who comes to work on his brother's farm in the outback. Slowly, this rural community is terrorized by strange incidents. The nature of them -- lights in the sky and power failures, for example -- is the only thing that seprates this tale from a classic ghost story. It's been years since I've seen this, but its creepiness is very memorable.
I'm looking for something great to watch on Halloween. Anyone have any suggestions? Please comment.

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