The House of the Devil (Shudder)
Written and directed by Ti West, The House of the Devil takes place in the 1980s, complete with feathered hair and Walkman radios. But it begins like a 1970s horror classic, with a grainy look, chilly autumn weather, and a freeze-frame title card. Yet the new film miraculously manages to avoid most of the formula horror chestnuts that have become prevalent since then.
It starts, relaxed and assured, with pretty Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), who needs cash to move into her own place. She finds a flyer for a babysitting job, but all is not as it seems. The job is actually looking after an old lady in a creepy house, while the owners (Tom Noonan, from Manhunter, and genre legend Mary Woronov) are away doing something related to a full lunar eclipse. Almost nothing scary happens during the first two-thirds of The House of the Devil (2009), and yet it’s absolutely riveting, an expert building and layering of suspense out of little more than a blank slate. Dee Wallace, from E.T. and Cujo co-stars, as does indie darling Greta Gerwig. Jeff Grace provided the score.
It Follows (Netflix)
A definite contender for the best horror movie of the last 10 years, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) contains a simple, terrifyingly primal idea. A pretty, young, blonde teen, Jay Height (Maika Monroe) decides to sleep with a boy she likes; when she does, he informs her that he has passed something on to her. There’s a force, a thing, that walks toward you. It never speaks, never runs, and it can look like anything. You do not want it to touch you, so you must sleep with someone else and pass it on.
The “following” theme is right out of nightmares, but coupled with the complex concept of sexual awakening, it becomes something more, perhaps the subject of term papers or of a therapist’s office. Mitchell has clearly been inspired by John Carpenter, using expertly-staged widescreen frames and natural locations (no shaky cam), as well as a deeply unsettling score by Disasterpiece.
Lucky McKee’s May (2002) is one of the strangest movies you could watch on Halloween—one scene takes place on October 31—but it builds on two very basic, very old themes. One is pure loneliness, and the other is the drive to create, a la Frankenstein. May (Angela Bettis) is a strange girl who has trouble making friends, and her “best” friend is a doll in a glass case named Suzie. She meets an auto mechanic/filmmaker (Jeremy Sisto), a flirty lesbian (Anna Faris), a punk (James Duval), and even a cat, and her weird behavior messes things up every time.
It all builds up to an insane, unforgettable conclusion. This freaky movie miraculously manages to generate genuine sympathy for May as well as working up a slight revulsion to her peculiar ways. The movie was barely released—its box office take is reported as $150,000 (that’s thousand, not million)—but it has since become a cult classic.
The Others (Amazon Prime)
After making the astoundingly good, trippy Open Your Eyes in Spain, writer/director Alejandro Amenábar was wined and dined by then-couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Cruise attempted a remake of Open Your Eyes (the despised Vanilla Sky) while Kidman took the lead in Amenábar’s next, the haunting, lovely, moody The Others (2001). She plays a 1940s-era wife and mother living in a huge mansion. Her husband is away at war, presumed dead, and her children have a serious photosensitive condition in which they cannot be exposed to light stronger than a candle. So the house must be kept in near-darkness, and each room must be locked upon entering or leaving.
Three new servants (Fionnula Flanagan, Eric Sykes, and Elaine Cassidy) start work and strange things start to happen; ghosts seem to be lurking about. Amenábar keeps a cool tone with Kubrick-like compositions and a slow, creeping storytelling style. The movie was a huge hit, surpassing even Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! that same summer. It also cleaned up at Spain’s Goya awards, the first non-Spanish language movie to do so.
Following the controversial Priest (1994) and a Drew Barrymore romance, the late English director Antonia Bird offered this surprisingly clever, moody, giddily entertaining horror movie. Set in the mid 19th century around the time of the Mexican-American War, Ravenous (1999) takes place at a remote, snowbound military outpost where Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), accused of cowardice, has been stationed. A stranger, Colonel Ives (Robert Carlyle), arrives, telling tales of having survived by resorting to cannibalism. Unfortunately, it turns out that, according to an ancient legend, anyone who consumes human flesh gains incredible strength, but is also cursed with an insatiable desire for more.
With David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, and John Spencer in her cast, director Bird does a remarkable job of balancing a dark strain of humor with genuine, chilling, close-to-the-bone horror. A brilliant score by Michael Nyman adds a 1970s flavor. The movie flopped, thanks in part to an awful trailer that painted the movie as an outright comedy, but it has become a cult favorite.
One of the best-loved of all the “found footage” horror movies that have dominated the market in the past 15 years, the Spanish language [REC] (2007)—short for “record,” as seen on a video camera—can easily make one seasick, or perhaps merely queasy. Manuela Velasco stars as the feisty, spunky journalist Angela—in pigtails and a white tank top—who, with her cameraman Pablo, is covering the night shift at a fire station for a documentary TV series. They are called to help an old woman in an apartment building, and they soon find that they are trapped, quarantined for some mysterious reason.
As the night drags on, the reasons become less mysterious as certain people start turning into zombies. Co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza unfold their story over a tight, tense 75 minutes, using the hand-held camera to create an atmosphere of immediacy, and never wasting an opportunity to ramp up the sense of panic, or provide a brutal scare. A big hit, it inspired an immediate American remake, Quarantine (2008), as well as several sequels.
Sadako vs. Kayako (Shudder)
Sadako is the stringy-haired ghost girl who kills people after they view a cursed video tape in Ringu (or The Ring) and Kayako is another stringy-haired girl ghost who curses and kills anyone who enters her house in Ju-on: The Grudge. So consider Sadako vs. Kayako (2016) the Freddy vs. Jason of Japanese horror. In a pair of series already rife with sequels and remakes, this one is right at home; it’s ridiculous, but gleefully, madly entertaining. Directed by Koji Shiraishi, it spends far more time setting up the Sadako mythology, with a young woman (Aimi Satsukawa) hoping to transfer an old wedding video to DVD as a gift to her parents; she and a friend (Mizuki Yamamoto) find a VHS deck in a second hand store, and lo and behold, the cursed tape is inside.
Meanwhile, a high school student (Tina Tamashiro) unwisely enters the “grudge” house and angers Kayako. A ghost-hunter, Keizo (Masanobu Ando) is called in and he devises the brilliant plan of swapping curses and having the ghosts fight each other to death. Unfortunately, he has a plan “B” that’s not quite so brilliant. The movie was briefly released in theaters, and now it’s a Shudder exclusive.
Shaun of the Dead (Amazon Prime, Hulu)
Most film nerds know and love Shaun of the Dead (2004), a zombie comedy so good that even George A. Romero gave it his seal of approval. Its creators, writer/director Edgar Wright, writer/star Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost, were even given the chance to be zombies in Romero’s next film. In this, Pegg plays Shaun, a somewhat lazy, ne’er-do-well who, along with his even lazier pal Ed (Frost), slowly discover that a zombie apocalypse is happening. He decides he must get to his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and his mum (Penelope Wilton) and get them to the local pub, where it’s sure to be safe.
The movie is playfully gory, and unabashedly clever and funny, with many memorable bits, such as Shaun trying to figure out which of his vinyl records he’s willing to part with for use as weapons. But it’s also directed with an enviable kinetic smoothness that makes it a pure pleasure to watch. Even better, it actually cares for its characters, and certain moments are so poignant that they can inspire tears. If that’s not enough, then Bill Nighy, Martin Freeman, and Rafe Spall are all here as well.
Tales of Halloween (Netflix)
Horror anthologies are a dime-a-dozen, but this one, which tells ten short, punchy little stories, is everything a good one should be: a little spooky and a little fun. Not all the stories are winners, but more than half will stick with you. Each of the stories takes place on Halloween day or night, and certain trick-or-treaters can be spotted crossing from one story to another. In some of the stories, a young boy is tempted by the devil to play practical jokes, two men fight over lawn decorations, a woman is followed by a malevolent spirit, two men kidnap a demon boy, and a witch hopes to eat trick-or-treaters as they come to her door. Another one is a parody of a cop movie with a killer pumpkin on the loose.
Many horror legends appear, starting with Adrienne Barbeau as a night radio DJ who occasionally narrates. Directors like Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and John Landis have roles, and even poster designer Drew Struzan plays a police sketch artist. Tales of Halloween (2015) was made by, among others, Darren Lynn Bousman, Axelle Carolyn, Neil Marshall, Lucky McKee, and Ryan Schifrin; the latter is the son of the legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, and he coaxed his dad to contribute a great, creepy main title theme.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Netflix)
Though he took the meta-horror movie to massive new highs two years later with Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)—the director’s name in the title—was his first real foray into post-modernism. In this movie, all the stars of the hit A Nightmare on Elm Street (and sequels) play themselves. Robert Englund is just a regular guy, Heather Langenkamp is now a mom with a young son, and she occasionally chats with her friend John Saxon. There hasn’t been a new Freddy Krueger movie in years, but fans are clamoring for more, and Wes Craven has begun to work on something based on his own nightmares.
Unfortunately, a real-life Freddy—apparently a demon that can only be contained by telling stories and making movies—begins slashing his way through Hollywood. With his unique use of space and rhythm, Craven proves that he belongs with history’s great horror masters. To date, Freddy has only re-appeared twice, battling another slasher in Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and in the obligatory remake A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).