SCREAM (Wes Craven, 1996)
Despite its title as one of the most iconic 1990’s horror, Wes Craven’s Scream has always evaded my horror-watching eyes. I was too young to watch the film when it was first released (even though I attempted viewing parts of it on Cinemax unbeknownst to my parents) and despite my love for Craven’s early work, I somehow hadn’t watched the film until now.
I knew it’d be funny, I knew it’d be satire, I just didn’t know it’d be so good. The film, to the credit of both Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, works on multiple levels of horror. It satisfies the the hardcore horror film with a bold take on the slasher genre and created a new iconic horror villain. This would be a good slasher film even without the witty dialogue and meta levels of self awareness that carry it into horror fame. The ability to work on two levels, serious horror and comedy, makes Craven’s iconic film something that will actually stand the test of time, proven by how it managed to impress me more than 15 years after its original release.
PSYCHO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Alfred Hitchcock was the first filmmaker that made an undeniable impression on me. Sure, I had my George A. Romero favorites, my David Cronenberg obsession and my early love for Ingmar Bergman. But before I understood the effect cinema could have on me, Hitchcock was there to take me by the hand and demonstrate effective narration and storytelling.
Psycho, arguably the director’s most infamous and iconic title (but perhaps not the best), remains a chilling tale to this day. But the most interesting component of Hitchcock’s classic horror film isn’t the Bates Motel, the exceptional musical score or the bloody shower scene: it’s the jarring, bold and risk-taking narrative. Psycho is leaps and bounds different than most other films in the way Hitchcock manipulates the audience into his story. The “leading” lady and, from what we’re supposed to believe, main character is murdered early into the film, forcing the film’s narrative to find a new direction and a focus. Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is pitch perfect and perhaps one of the most frightening and chilling in horror history for how mentally unstable and erratic it truly is.
Hitchcock’s direction, of course, is masterful and the film as a whole is a sparkling display of what suspicion, anticipation and terror can do to a film audience. The Master of Suspense might have made better films in his career, but Psycho will live on for a number of other unique reasons, much like the rest of this tremendous filmmaker’s career.
DRACULA (Tod Browning, 1931)
Tod Browning’s Dracula, a Gothic masterpiece, can now be seen in a way we’ve never seen it before. In the new Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray collection, Browning’s awesome film has been given new life and new blood with a gorgeous and careful restoration.
Perhaps best known for Bela Lugosi’s stunning, nuanced and detailed performance as Count Dracula, Browning’s film is exceptional for a number of other reasons. The Gothic production really gets to me on a spooky level, and with the new Blu-ray transfer it all can be seen even better. The film’s opening sequences, with Dracula’s large, haunting and dark castle dominating every scene and shot, is legendary work. Lugosi’s first appearance as Dracula strikes a nerve and remains with you. This must have been a terrifying film in 1931.
I have to say, if the film was made years later it would benefit from an extra 15 or 20 minutes of storytelling. There’s missing character transitions and not enough devotion to the whole story. That said, it doesn’t even matter. This is a glorious, magical film that doesn’t need to rely on just its lore or Lugosi’s awesome performance to impress today’s generation looking for a classic spook.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 1 AND 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1974 & 1986)
It might be a disservice to review these two very different films together, but I thought it might be easier to be able to talk about the film and series as a whole this way.
Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an absolutely legendary film. Consider the year it was made: 1974 predates a lot of essential and influential horror/slasher films, including Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and John Carpenter’s Halloween. It is a chaotic compilation of early, gritty horror styles and one of the most important American films of its kind.
The film also has a sort of personal hold over me, considering Buckethead, the guitar virtuoso, used a lot of one liners and quotes and references to Hooper’s original film in his early music. It makes watching the film, and listening to his music, a sort of nostalgic experience. The film is as quotable and memorable as horror films can get.
That said, Hooper’s production of this low budget and gutsy film is impressive. The scene that sticks out for most is Leatherface’s first appearance. Even to this day, when I know it’s going to happen, the loud thud of Leatherface’s hammer on an unsuspecting and surprised teenage head is sickening and difficult. It had to be, at the time, one of the more frightening and shocking scenes American audiences were privy to inside the genre, perhaps only beaten by Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene and Craven’s Last House on the Left. There were enough video nasties to go around, but there’s something that stands out about Hooper’s bold effort.
And so the vintage and viscous film, one of the most influential ever made, took 12 years to get a sequel. Hooper signed on and reflective of the new decade American horror filmmakers were working in created something completely different than his first film. Those wanted more of the raw and realistic feeling the first film threw at them in terrifying fashion were likely disappointed.
The second film is a good one. It represents the strange, weird and wild 1980’s landscape of horror filmmaking and does so with a great sense of humor. Leatherface’s presence is amplified and Bill Moseley’s addition to the cast as Chop Top gave the series another legendary character. For Moseley, it was the role that launched his iconic cult horror career. Moseley has done just about everything a cult horror actor can do and has done it with a strong group of devoted fans backing him. His performance as Chop Top is about as weird as they get, that’s for sure.
But it’s still hard to believe how drastic of a departure Hooper’s first and second films actually are. One is a frightening, tenacious horror film that really lives within its exploitative realm and the other is a souped up and bizarre attempt at…well…something else. The awesome addition of Dennis Hopper helps the second film, sure, but him running around with three chainsaws, madly sawing wood bearings down and screaming about how the whole complex must come down like a maniac is a prime example of what separated the serious first (and excellent) film and the more silly second (and okay) film.
THE WOLF MAN (George Waggner, 1941)
Like Dracula, George Waggner’s The Wolf Man, another iconic horror film from Universal’s golden age of monsters, was given a completely new and restored transfer in the Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray collection. This was the first time I had seen the film, though, and I came away mostly impressed with what Waggner presented to me.
Lon Chaney Jr’s performance as The Wolf Man rivals others, but it doesn’t quite have the same lasting impression as the best do. Perhaps that might be due to Chaney’s actually limited on-screen appearance as the Wolf Man. He spends most of the film out in broad daylight as his alter ego while the wolfing around is limited to other parts of the film. It’s an old film, the storytelling isn’t quite there and really isn’t impressive, but Waggner’s production does a lot with what it has. Like Browning’s Dracula it creates a great and spooky set of surroundings. The forest the Wolf Man lurks around in truly is spooky, with all the fog and dark shadows benefiting greatly from the sharp black and white. Well worth your time, but like other early films, could use a little more time to allow itself to beef up.