THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (Ti West, 2009)
The House of the Devil is my favorite horror film of the last five years. Maybe even longer. Ti West reaches his horror filmmaking maturity with the most tense, building and slow-burning horror film that’s been made in years.
The film, which will resonate with audiences that value atmosphere and patience in their horror and not the ones that need gore, flew onto the scene a couple of years ago to quick acclaim. West shot all of the film in Connecticut, my home state, and staged most of the first 20 minutes or so on the Central Connecticut State University campus, my old college and quite perfectly home of the Blue Devils. So naturally, when I noticed that, I geeked out immediately. I still do to this day. I always regret not trying to interview West about how and why the campus was selected in the first place during my time on the CCSU student newspaper.
Also of personal importance is Jocelin Donahue’s lead role as the soon-to-be terrorized college student. She’s beautiful, her performance makes your melt heart (just watch her dance around to The Fixx) and she could have been a new “scream queen” if she wanted to be. She really hasn’t taken advantage of this film’s success yet. I hope she does.
What makes The House of the Devil as good as a lot of people say it is comes from the patient hand that West dips into his story. He is careful to slowly unravel his mischievous satanic cult plot. And even though the end result isn’t a complete shock to those paying attention, it still strikes a nerve because of the way West tells the story. A lot of films think to startle, impress or scare a horror audience you need to throw a lot in their face. That’s not true (at least for me). West’s patient and reserved tactics are far more devious and evil to the audience’s well-being.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (Frank De Felitta, 1981)
Just how good can a made-for-television horror movie from 1981 be? If it’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the answer is very good.
This film, which found new life last year on Blu-ray, isn’t the scariest, creepiest, goriest or nastiest horror title on this planet. But like the film I just reviewed, De Felitta induces rage, terror and psychological scares with a slow, prodding film that burns its way through your psyche.
At its heart, Scarecrow tells the small-town story of a wrongfully executed man and the assassins that are haunted and stalked for some time after his death. What impressed me the most was how De Felitta actually made the audience uncomfortable. In a lot of horror films there’s a known presence, a known villain or a known whatever it is that is going to make you wake up and pay attention to things. In De Felitta’s film, while we suspect that the natural killer would be some kind of reincarnation of the man who was killed, most of the dread is created by much else. The atmosphere and the curiosity behind what presence might actually be behind the slasher film-like killings have the most juice in this title.
It’s 30 years later now and this film still holds up. What I would have given to be scared by this one as a young kid in 1981.
SCREAM 2 and 3 (Wes Craven, 1997 and 2000)
I wish I had more to say about these two films than I do. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them both, but to talk about them in any cinematic way would rehash my review of the first film. But I guess that would be fitting.
The first two Scream sequels, which came at the hand of Wes Craven (thankfully), are faithful additions to a series that in 1997 found itself entering a territory most slasher films never reach: respectability and fandom. Luckily, Craven made two films that retained the style and formula of the absolutely classic original film. These two aren’t as good (and the fourth one is better, but you can read about that next week), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile titles.
What these films do is provide what the fans want. They want those twisting if albeit maddening whodunit stories, which is one of the features of Scream that stands out the most to me. In a typical slasher, we may or may not know who the killer is. We might just be watching a killer we know mow down teenagers with little to know mystery behind it. That isn’t the case in every slasher film, but it is the case in some. In Scream we know “who” the killer is (it’s ghost face!) but we don’t REALLY know who it is. That provides some kind of dynamic to a film that at times really needs it to keep viewers hooked in.
FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale, 1931 and 1935)
James Whale’s Frankenstein is so much more than just an iconic monster movie. This is one of the great tales where good meets evil, obsession becomes a problem and tragedy is a problematic motivator for us all.
Whale’s film, as a whole, may actually be better than Dracula of the same year. It’s a most impressive tale of bringing life to death. While the film might be most often remember for Boris Karloff’s tremendous and brooding performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, it really deserves to be commended for how good of a representation of the source material it actually is.
But the real point of this review is about Bride of Frankenstein. Released four years later, Whale’s sequel is arguably one of the best sequels ever made. Heck, it might even be a better film than the first, which says a lot considering the classic standing it received. The title actually sort of misrepresents the film. You might imagine the film is about Karloff’s monster hooking it up with a equally dead woman, but that isn’t quite the case.
While Dr. Frankenstein and a new and even more insane partner attempt to and eventually do create a female monster, the real guts of this story come in the growth of Karloff’s monster. He learns, he becomes an emotional character. He transcends the stumbling and bumbling monster of the first film and becomes something more, something to root for. This is a totally complete and more importantly meaningful film that is arguably the best monster flick Universal came out with in those early days.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (Rob Zombie, 2003 and 2005)
From music to film, Rob Zombie has given us some of the most macabre things to see and hear over the years. Turning into a filmmaker might not have been a logical step, but it’s worked for Zombie. He’s had his critics, his challengers and his naysayers. But House of 1000 Corpses, I must say, is one fine horror debut. And The Devil’s Rejects is an even better second film.
The films, which draw HEAVILY from classic horror titles of the 1970’s (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will quickly come to mind), are moody and gritty. Best of all, the pair are completely different types of films despite their co-dependence as very connecting films.
The first film, House of 1000 Corpses, is a more macabre film compared to the sequel, which takes a hard turn at being pure exploitation. But before we get to that, let’s talk 1000 Corpses and why it works. The story doesn’t stray far from its predecessors: four kids get lost in the middle of nowhere and stumble upon creepy characters and eventually a house that is as uninviting as it looks on the outside. The Firefly family is nothing to mess with. Led by Otis (played by the wonderful Bill Moseley), they kidnap, torture and kill whoever they seem to be able to get their hands on. The killing load is shouldered by other family members, like the sultry Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie).
Zombie’s concept works for a few reasons. The atmospheric clench his moody style puts on the viewers is one thing, with snuff-like home video footage pieced between the actual clean style film is unique and, while at first perplexing, adds a lot to the film’s vibe. The other reason the whole thing works, outside of the awesome music, is the great character actors involved. Moseley is a GOD in these films. Like I said last week, his Choptop character in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 launched a career of these evil characters and this is one of his best. Zombie’s wife, as Baby, is a hot and sexy siren singing the song of death. These turn the characters into the memorable psychos that we all love to watch.
In The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie doesn’t completely throw his style away, but he certainly takes a different path. Showing himself as a more mature filmmaker that doesn’t need any sort of gimmick to survive, he crafts one of the most intense exploitation pictures of the last decade or two. The film finds the Firefly family running from the law and surviving the only way they know how: terrorizing innocent people. Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) all return from the first film, along with others, and provide us with enough terror for one film.
The Devil’s Rejects is a really good, hardened and gritty film. Zombie doesn’t show his macabre hand as often in this title, but that’s for the better, because it does become enveloping in the first film. Instead, we’re treated to a brutal and sometimes even poetic assault that remains one of the most underrated of its kind.