Friday, June 25, 2010

Question of the Day: What Makes a Good Horror Film?

Wow, I haven't done one of these in a long time. Since I've been thinking about horror films all summer (and will continue to do so) I was thinking about what makes a horror movie great.  So, what is it that makes a horror movie great for you?  Is it the comfortableness of the genre (i.e. the gore, the violence, the gratuitous nudity, teens in peril, etc.) that gives the viewer the kind of nostalgia that a lot of people opine about when they speak of horror films (specifically the slasher films of the 80's)?  Does it need to obey those rules or the tropes of the genre? Should it be sprinkled with humor, or have its tongue in its cheek? Does a good horror movie need atmosphere?  Does it successfully displace you and make you feel uneasy about what's going on?  Does it have to be realistic? For me there are a few examples of what I think make up a great horror movie (keep in mind I'm not saying these are the best horror movies, I'm just using them as examples):

Halloween: We'll start with the slasher film, and the obvious example at that, but it takes one of the primary hindrances for any horror movie (a limited budget) and creates one of the best looking horror films with its minimalistic and haunting score, and impressive use of the widescreen format.  Evil creeps up on you in the peripheries, and not only that, but John Carpenter places a lot of the initial stalking scenes in plain daylight in a seemingly safe suburban neighborhood.  Everything that screams normal and safe is inverted here, and it's all because of Carpenter's reliance on a classic mise-en-scene rather than ratchetiung up his film with false scares and buckets of blood.

The Beyond/City of the Living Dead: These two Italian horror films are the greatest, but they're perfect examples of what I like in a supernatural horror film. Characters come and go without any explanation, there is no sense of time or place, and the set pieces seem constructed out of Lucio Fulci's deranged nightmares.  Buildings are almost always abandoned, towns deserted, and people do inexplicably evil and nasty things thanks to ancient books being unearthed or curses caused by priests hanging themselves.  These two films are perfect examples of what it is to have an ethereal horror experience.  The plot's are nonsensical mishmashes of ideas, and the threads that connect them are razor thin; however, you don't watch Italian horror for its riveting's all about atmosphere, and Fulci's films (I'll throw Argento's Suspiria and Pupi Avati's The House with Laughing Windows in there as well) are dripping with it.

The Descent: Here you have just enough realism (the opening spelunking scenes) that it gives me the willies just thinking about it (I'm claustrophobic); however, you also have a crazy-as-hell monster movie in its second half. Neil Marshall's brilliant horror film is a perfect example of how to do the monster movie right (have fun), while still maintaining an appropriate tone (something he couldn't do in his follow-up Doomsday) throughout the film.  You also have smart, strong female characters inahbiting this film, the "woman in peril" trope isn't as lame as it normally is because these women fight back, especially Juno, and they're give some time to create their charatcers so they don't just become props to be gnawed on by the crawlers.  Sarah, the main character, is given some heartbreaking context, and her past hovers over the entrie length of the film until we're treated to one a heartbreaking and poignant final shot...something you almost never get in a horror movie.  Marshall's film is also super referential, which makes for tons of geekout moments for nerdy horror fans such as myself.

There ya have it.  That's what I think makes a good horror movie: either play it classically the way Carpenter did, play is ethereal and nonsensical where it's all about atmosphere like Fulci did, or play it referential and have fun like Marshall. I'll be interested to hear what you all have to say.  Discuss in the comments. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer of Slash: Capsule Reviews, Part 3

Here are some more capsule reviews as I am continuing to blitz through a giant to-do list in preparation for the Wonders in the Dark horror countdown. This week I didn't focus on the slasher as I visited and re-visited four "different" horror movies (specifically I re-visited three films and finally got around to watching one that's been on my list since its highly anticipated release, but more on that later). I decided to re-visit one of the worst versions of Frankenstein in a moment of stupidity, but hey it was on Starz in HD so I thought I would give it another chance. I also decided to re-watch Dario Argento's Inferno, a film that is definitely better than its negative reputation. It's odd: at one point I remember liking Inferno more than Suspiria, but upon further review I can safely say that isn't the case. I also decided to re-visit the fun and harmless From Dusk till Dawn, a clear sign that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were thinking about Grindhouse long before its release. Finally, I worked up the nerve to finish the Three Mothers trilogy by watching Mother of Tears. Reviews come after the jump…

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Summer of Slash: The House on Sorority Row (AKA House of Evil)

What some horror buffs consider the best of the "dorm killer" films, The House on Sorority Row is one of the most interesting slashers to be released in the early 80's, but my God is it a maddening film (just look at the poster, and then when you're done reading this look at it again and think about how misleading it is). Not because it's wholly terrible, but because the final half of the film is so well made it makes you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking with the execution of the first half of the movie. It contains some bright spots in its giallo like style and mystery, but the first half of the film's aesthetic is that of a USA "Up All Night" movie (which is alright when you've got others around to watch this tripe with, but it is hell when watching it alone). However, the awfulness of the beginning doesn't keep The House on Sorority Row from being one of the most interesting slashers I've watched so far this summer. It's definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Summer of Slash: Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film

Here's an interesting and entertaining documentary that is ultimately unsatisfying because it omits important slashers like Black Christmas or the imports from Italy. However, the film does includes great interviews with other important slasher figures besides Craven and Carpenter and Savini, which makes it a tad more interesting than I was anticipating. You get to hear from the people who created The Prowler and The Slumber Party Massacre and My Bloody Valentine and Graduation Day, and many others. And that is what makes it an engaging documentary: we actually get to hear from the people who cashed in on the success of the Craven's and Sean Cunningham's (who is a hack that got lucky…and he kind of admits that in the film). One of the things that is annoying about the documentary, though, is that the interviews are rarely stationary as the interviewees walk around talking about the genre and the camera is constantly moving with them (even if they do stop for a second). I don't need to be "entertained" during an interview…what the people are saying is interesting enough, but the makers of this documentary failed to understand that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer of Slash: Capsule Reviews, Part 2

In case you haven't noticed yet, I changed my header and the font for the blog. Why? Well, I figured since I was doing a summer series on horror films I would appropriately change the color scheme of the blog's title (not to mention find a more appropriate picture, but I promise once summer is over Hugo will return…perhaps in a new picture! Exciting, I know.) for the next few months. I also added an "archive" on the sidebar there to the left where you can see all of the films I've reviewed for my Summer of Slash series.  As I continue my push to watch as many horror movies as possible in preparation for the Wonders in the Dark horror countdown here are some more capsule reviews where I take a look at the satirical (?) The Slumber Party Massacre, the Australian monster pic Rogue, and two slashers from Canada in Prom Night and Terror Train. Reviews come after the jump…

Monday, June 14, 2010

Summer of Slash: Wolf Creek

Greg McLean's homage to Ozploitation films is one of the most effective slasher films I've ever seen. The 00's gave birth to the most disgusting and schlocky subgenre – the torture porn – and Wolf Creek unfairly got lumped in with the likes of Saw and Hostel. However, when one looks at McLean's film compared to those monstrosities it's easy to see why so many horror mavens prefer McLean's unflinching snapshot of horror in the outback to the snarky tone of most torture porn. Wolf Creek blindsided me with how effective it was, and in the way McLean doesn't look upon his characters as plot devices or mere "dead teenagers" who are paying for their "sins" of youthful exuberance (they aren't just props to be severed and humiliated for our entertainment); no, there's not a drop of Eli Roth-like cynicism found in Wolf Creek, just an unflinchingly horrifying realism and seriousness to the material and the fate of the characters.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Summer of Slash: Capsule Reviews

In an effort to get through as many horror films as I can for the upcoming horror countdown at the wonderful blog Wonders in the Dark (for which I will be a contributor, and the main inspiration for this summer Horror project) I have decided to cram a bunch of reviews into one post (which I will do frequently) since I need to save time, it helps, too, that a lot of horror movies can't really sustain an entire post on their own, so the capsule review becomes a life (and time) saver. I will reiterate my "rules" for this project: I am mostly focusing on slasher films (hence the title of this project), but I am not limiting myself to just once kind of horror film since I need to (re)watch a lot of them before I construct my list for the Wonders in the Dark countdown. Therefore, I am planning on mostly cramming all of the non-slashers (and some that can only have about a paragraph written about them) into these capsule-review posts to make my life a lot easier. This week the viewing schedule consisted of the low-budge slasher The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Joe Dante's beloved werewolf feature The Howling, the Ozploitation romp Razorback (from the director of Highlander!), and 2010's dystopian vampire sci-fi/horror hybrid Daybreakers. Reviews come after the jump...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer of Slash: Sleepaway Camp (AKA Nightmare Vacation)

One gap in my knowledge of the American slasher film has always been the 1983 entry Sleepaway Camp. I don't know why I always skipped watching this when the opportunity came up (I vividly remember the cover box from days as a youngster perusing the horror aisles at the local video store, and wanting to watch it), maybe it was because it's reputation solely rested on one element and one element only: its shock ending. I didn't really feel like slogging through a below mediocre slasher just to get to one scene, but hey, I did a few years ago with The Burning (whose gore effects were more than worth wadding through the mediocrity of that film) and this year with The Prowler (ditto), so I figured what the hell…I'd finally give Sleepaway Camp a shot for my horror project this summer. What I found was a film that was exactly the opposite of the aforementioned gore-effect classics: here's a film that is far more cerebral, a film that for 1 hour and 18 minutes seems like a nice little entry into the slasher subgenre with its unwillingness to rely on stupid teenagers running into the woods to get slaughtered and other tired genre tropes; however, all of those "nice" qualities are heightened by the film's final two minutes that more than lives up to its reputation. Usually twist endings don't do anything for me, but every once in awhile a twist ending gives new context to a film, it lingers in your mind for days and makes it nearly impossible to forget not just the image, but the film as a whole. Sleepaway Camp has this type of ending.

Summer of Slash: Tourist Trap

In 1980 the American slasher craze kicked into high gear. A glut of boring, stale, and monotonous (not to mention tedious) films were being released on the cheap and flooding American theaters and drive-ins. If you're like me, though, and you're intrigued by the film's that were released prior to the onslaught of mediocrity known as the 1980 American horror film, then perhaps you should check out the oddity that is Tourist Trap. Here's a film that cribs from its better predecessors (making it one of the first referential horror films) – Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, House of Wax, and Repulsion – and adds creepy mannequins and a unsettling and unorthodox musical score that makes for one of the more interesting (in a both good and often bad way) late 70's horror films. Tourist Trap is all at once eerie and goofy, nasty and sterile, creepy and laugh-out-loud other words: I don't think I've seen a horror film like it.