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Halloween Special — Groovers and Mobsters Present: Horror

(As part of a Groovers and Mobsters Halloween special presentation, some horror-crazed bloggers — including me — have taken on our picks for the best horror films ever made. Here’s my take on “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. To read the entire list, visit this post on Heather the Original Movie Mobster’s blog or click the graphic above.)

 

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)

If you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do. They think you’re four different people.” ~~Henry

Evil lives in our world, and it rarely wears an obvious or garish mask of villainy. That’s a truth human beings prefer not to confront. It’s simpler to imagine that true evil is recognizable somehow, that it cannot hide beneath a pleasant-looking surface. John McNaughton, who shot “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” on a paltry $110,000, understands this elemental human need … and he ignores it. His film is a crumpled snapshot of evil in its basic, most mundane form – a grim reality that can’t be shaken easily.

Talented as he is, McNaughton couldn’t create such a disturbing film without the right actor to play the killer, who must seem harmless enough to function in everyday life but be viciously single-minded in his goals. Michael Rooker, then a relative nobody, plays the part so monstrously well that it’s difficult now, 24 years later, to see him as anyone other than an emotionless murderer. Rooker is Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the Chicago apartment of Otis (Tom Towles), newly paroled and not the least bit rehabilitated. When Otis discovers Henry’s secret, he wants to join in, and Henry obliges – but not before schooling Otis on the importance of never developing a traceable pattern. The arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) causes friction between Otis, who lusts openly after his sister, and Henry, who treats this lost soul with kindness and is flattered by her interest in him. But love and companionship, Becky will learn, mean nothing to Henry.

McNaughton based “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (very) loosely on the story of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, which lends a feeling of authenticity to the film. More important than that, though, is the director’s pointedly unromanticized direction. He forces us to see through the killer’s eyes – as Henry sizes up potential victims, as Henry and Otis slaughter an entire family, videotape the massacre and watch it again for their own sick pleasure. McNaughton forces us to become voyeurs, and it’s the removal of that protective distance that makes “Henry” so frightening.

Films You Didn’t Know You Needed to See 666

(Kai Parker, creator extraordinaire of The List, has hatched this creepy, spooky and altogether ooky posting event on great horror films you might have missed. Below you will find my top three picks designed to scare off your britches. To see the entire list, visit the post on his blog.)
 
 “Black Christmas” (1974) — Before “Friday the 13th,” before “Halloween” and even before “When a Stranger Calls,” there was Robert Clark’s wholly unsettling “Black Christmas.” Hailed by fans as one of the original (if not THE original) slasher films, this scary little find of a film turns a cozy, Christmas-lit Canadian sorority house into a den of psychological terror, mayhem and murder as a prank caller’s calls turn from annoying to scary. You’ll never look at your attic — or your telephone — the same way again.

 

“The Brood” (1979) — Horror films don’t tend to contain deep, personal messages; David Cronenberg’s “The Brood,” however, is one of the few that does. Written during his own painful custody battle with his ex-wife, this disturbing horror film/thriller centers on an emotionally distraught divorcée (Samantha Eggar) who seeks the help of an unconventional therapist and begins giving birth to deformed, child-like beings that exact revenge on those who hurt her. The kid killers are scary, but it’s the message about the trauma of a family divided really lingers unpleasantly.

 

“The House of the Devil” (2009) — Ti West’s unbelievably tense “The House of the Devil,” a minor indie horror sensation, is not for the impatient. The film, which introduces a cash-strapped college student (Jocelin Donahue) who takes a babysitting job despite the employer’s (Tom Noonan) obvious creepiness, is slow going for a full 80 minutes — a time of complete inaction (nothing, truly, is all that happens). But West understands that the anticipation, the endless waiting, plays on our minds and forces us to do all the real long-term damage to ourselves.

Shriekfest 2010: “El Orfanato,” “Wolf Creek”

“El Orfanato” (2007)
Starring Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo, Montserrat Carulla

Cheery, idyllic childhoods are uncommon. Laura (Rueda) believes she had one, and she wants to recreate the experience by reopening the orphanage of her youth, now a rambling, creaky building in disrepair. Since moving in, though, Laura and her husband Carlos (Cayo) have noticed some alarming changes in their adopted son Simón (Príncep). Simón begins to talk of a new friend, Tomás – invisible to Laura and Carlos – who lives in the orphanage and wears a sack mask. An eerie woman (Carulla) who claims to be a social worker shows up unannounced with a file on Simón; later that night, Laura spots her lurking in the coal shed. The bizarre events culminate in Simón’s disappearance, and Laura’s growing suspicions that the orphanage may be haunted by ghosts of the friends she left behind. In that respect, “El Orfanato” is a beautifully shot, nerve-wracking ghost story in deliciously ominous setting. Director Juan Antonio Bayona goes only for the under-the-skin frights – the unexplained thumps and bangs above and in the walls; unrelenting, hostile silence; Laura’s growing certainty that someone or something in the house is toying with her. Or has her grief driven her to the brink of madness? Bayona – and Rueda, who delivers a raw, heart-twisting performance – give away nothing until the moment is absolutely right. Because in “El Orfanato,” as in all good ghost stories, it’s the tale, the people and spirits wrapped up in it that matter most. A

“Wolf Creek” (2005)
Starring Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt

The forever-winding Australian outback is said to be one of the harshest, most inhospitable natural environments in the world. Greg McLean has that dusty, barren soil in his blood, which explains why in “Wolf Creek” the outback feels as much like a character as any of the unknown actors. The terrain appears to watch, silently and knowingly, as three friends – English tourists Liz (Magrath) and Kristy (Morassi), plus their Aussie pal Ben (Phillips) – travel deeper into the middle of nowhere in search of a crater. It’s but a matter of time before the car won’t crank and the trio faces a night huddled together inside, away from the unforgiving landscape. Obliging, helpful chap Mick (Jarratt) drives up, his headlights like glowing animal eyes breaking up the darkness, and offers to tow them to his camp and fix the car. In his odd smile and tone there’s an edge only Ben catches, but he’s outnumbered and a little too eager to impress Liz. Only after Mick has towed the travelers hours from the crater do they realize his only interest in mercy is making them scream bloody murder for it. The unblinking torture (like the bit with the severed spinal cord) and the endless, agonized sobbing are a bit gratuitous at times, and certainly a bit heavy-handed, but McLean does what he sets out to. He crafts a film that flirts with torture porn yet has enough smarts, psychological chills and awe-worthy cinematography to stand squarely apart from it. B+

Shriekfest 2010: “[REC],” “Candyman,” “28 Days Later”

“[REC]” (2007)
Starring Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Claudia Silva, Ana Velasquez

Most horror films try to give us a jolt or two, but the great ones tap into those way-down-deep primitive fears we try to pretend we’re too evolved to have. In the frenetic and chilling “[REC],” directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza accomplish this task with not much more than a hand-held video camera, an apartment building and a small cast required to react more than act. Presented as found footage, the film details a routine day of shooting for Spanish TV reporter Ángela Vidal (Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Rosso) that turns ghoulish. The pair, getting footage for a documentary TV show, tail a fire crew on a distress call to a Barcelona apartment complex. A crazed elderly woman attacks one of the firemen, the building is swiftly quarantined and the alarmed residents are told nothing. That first chomp-down gives “[REC]” a violent shove into action overdrive, with an infection turning the trapped residents into raving, uncontrollable creatures. The jittery camerawork is an ace fit for the tight setting, and there are off-camera bangs and shrieks aplenty in the dark to keep the terror quotient consistently high. Given the volatile setting and lickety-split pace, the characters-as-types approach works well (there’s no time to care about the people as anything other than humans). And the ending, a sublime combination of claustrophobia, nyctophobia and our fear of unexplained noises, is a harrowing descent into hell. A-

“Candyman” (1992)
Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons

“Candyman,” with its focus on the pervasiveness of urban legends, tells a familiar story from an unusual perspective. Instead of morality play about the dangers of meddling kids with too much time on their hands and a death wish, Clive Barker’s film spins a bizarre, spooky and downright metaphorical yarn about how these legends not only survive but thrive through the years. Helen Lyle (Madsen), a graduate student, wants to author a thesis on urban legends. There is one in particular – of a murderous spirit called “Candyman” (Tony Scott) who haunts a crime-ridden Chicago housing project and may have killed a tenant there – that intrigues her. She and her friend Bernadette (Lemmons) attempt to summon the spirit, believed to be a murdered slave with an understandable grudge, in her bathroom mirror and laugh nervously when nothing happens. Oh, would that it were that easy. In summoning Candyman, Helen gives him free reign of her mind. She begins to have blackouts, people around her meet gruesome ends and the police hold her directly responsible. And to a degree, Helen wonders if she is guilty – of stirring memories best left slumbering, of feeding Candyman the fear and hysteria he needs to keep killing. Scott’s sinister performance is fodder for permanent night terrors. Deeper and scarier than Scott, though, is the notion that we create such legends and never let them starve. It’s a fate we doom ourselves to over and over. B

“28 Days Later” (2002)
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson

Just when zombie films started to get that icky, not-so-fresh feeling, along came “28 Days Later.” Danny Boyle has given the genre the makeover it badly needed. For starters, the “zombies” in question aren’t zombies at all, but human beings driven mad in 20 seconds (or less) by an unnamed disease. Replace the ragtag group of anonymous, generic survivors with Jim (Murphy), a London bicycle courier who awakens from a coma to find the world burning; Selena (Harris), whose has learned that surviving an apocalypse is easier when logic squashes feelings; and Frank (Gleeson) and Hannah (Burns), a father and daughter who, out of sheer emotional necessity, open their lives to Serena and Jim. They form an unconventional family and decide to strike out toward Manchester, where a crackly radio broadcast informs him the militia possesses “the answer to infection” – a decision with predictably awful (yet still surprising) consequences. Key to “28 Days Later,” which is part psychological thriller and part end-of-days tale, is the dreary cinematography and the taut atmosphere Boyle creates. He avoids the gore clichés, the “Boo!” scenes and the spare, obvious musical chords of warning, at every possible chance. So when the shocks come, they feel as uncalculated as everyday life gone horribly wonky. Murphy, Gleeson, Burns and especially Harris offer sympathetic — and intensely human — characters that make this situation more poignant than anyone would expect. A

My thought on today

Shriekfest 2010: Rob Zombie roundup, “High Tension”

“House of 1000 Corpses”
Starring Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Rainn Wilson

If Roald Dahl and Ed Gein ever had a secret lovechild, Rob Zombie is it. Zombie’s got an imagination on him that mightily trumps Stephen King’s in terms of psychotic kitsch and campy terror. “House of 1000 Corpses” is an entertaining if highly revolting combination of both, though Zombie’s attempts to make up in weirdness what he lacks in storytelling ability aren’t always successful. A gaggle of 20somethings — including Rainn Wilson playing Rainn Wilson — stop at the Texas gas station/museum of the bizarre owned by crude, wannabe minstrel Capt. Spaulding (Haig, funny and menacing) and decide to seek out the hanging tree of legendary sicko Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan). Of course they break down, and of course they become the unwitting houseguests of the Firefly family, composed of mom (Karen Black), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis (Bill Moseley), a horribly burned mute named Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and others. What vomitous horrors await them must be seen to be believed. Black and Haig’s kooky performances are entertaining, while Moseley finds depths of sickness that you’d never expect from, well, Bill Moseley. Though punctuated by flashes of humor (go on down to Red Hot Pussy Liquor and pick up some Dewar’s, would you?), the whole film devolves into a hallucinogenic mess by the end. And even really inventive weird-for-weird’s-sake gags get old after 90 minutes. C

“The Devil’s Rejects”
Starring William Forsythe, Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley

It’s a wonderful thing, focus is, and it’s just what “The Devil’s Rejects” has that Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” sorely, sorely lacked. Where the original was a grotesque parade of aimless, murder-obsessed freaks interspliced with sinister-comic tunes, “The Devil’s Rejects” tells a narrower – and wholly more interesting – tale. Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis (Moseley), Spaulding (Haig) and Ma Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook this time around) are the only survivors of a blitzkrieg raid orchestrated by Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (Forsythe), who wields his badge like a lightning rod of justice. Ma’s carted off to prison, while Baby and Otis escape to a nearby hotel and make hostages (and whimpering play toys) of a Christian singing group. Moseley, Haig and Moon Zombie’s inane squabbles – “there is no fucking ice cream in your fucking future!” Otis screams at a whining Baby – give “The Devil’s Rejects” a more obvious comedic slant, with the gruesome threesome coming across as more sympathetic than Forsythe’s self-righteous, laughably cocky Sheriff Wydell. The sequel’s also something of a come-uppance for the Firefly gang, with sins of their past nipping at their heels as they flee the law. Still, Zombie’s inexplicable affection for these reprobates is clear, and he writes (or tries to write them) this time around as human figures capable of affection and pain. When karma comes ‘round, we almost feel sorry. Almost. B+

“High Tension” (2003)
Starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon

Alexandre Aja thinks gore can be beautiful in its way. Nearly every frame of his horror/thriller “High Tension” fairly oozes style. (There’s plenty of blood, too, but the free-flowing claret somehow adds to the grim artistry.) He weaves a twisted, action-heavy storyline of serial killers and friendship without sacrificing mood in the race to the conclusion. There’s an ethereal elegance to the film’s most taut scenes, like a bloody gas station confrontation or hushed tiptoeing through a deserted greenhouse. This means the actors have little to do but utter few lines of dialogue and die spectacularly or fight like hell. Key players are college pals Marie (de France) and Alex (Le Besco) making a trip to Alex’s family’s isolated French country home to study for exams. Well after the witching hour a knock comes at the door, and Alex’s father answers, sealing his family’s future as prey for a deranged butcher (Mahon) with a fondness for using severed heads for oral sex. Everyone’s slaughtered – Alex’s mom gets the most chilling and starkly colorful dispatching – but Marie, who hides under the bed, and Alex, who’s carted off in the killer’s truck. The film turns high-octane after that, with de France demonstrating Ellen Ripley-like cunning, reflexes and an ability to think on her feet. The finale (either genius or insulting, but obvious to shrewd viewers) does an about-face that leaves no time for breath catching. Love the film or hate it, though, Aja’s flair for making gore seem arty is undeniable. B

My thought on today

Shriekfest 2010: “Black Christmas” (1974)

Attics in theory aren’t threatening. If anything, they have no presence at all — just dusty places to store garbage bags of old clothes, duct-taped boxes of Christmas ornaments, spittle-stained baby toys long discarded. With their dust and cobwebs and belly-up insect corpses, they are spaces to be avoided. Why? Maybe the reason is that on some level, we understand that the attic is where things go to die.

Watching Robert Clark’s deeply alarming “Black Christmas,” it’s amazing how adeptly he plays on this unspoken notion. When the girls in a Canadian sorority house start receiving regular creepy (sleep-with-the-lamp-and-TV-on creepy) phone calls and a sister goes missing, no one considers how real and close the danger might be. It’s some random kook with a telephone, no girlfriend and too much time on his hands, and probably Clare (Lynne Griffin) went to spend some time with boyfriend Chris (Art  Hindle) before Christmas break. Even when the bumbling local police get involved, the girls and their cheery alcoholic house mother Mrs. MacHenry (Mariam Haldman) feel a certain safeness closed up in the sorority house, locked away from the danger outside. Safety in numbers, they assume. They never think to check the attic. They never think the calls are coming from inside the house.

Tempted to rip out chunks of hair at the thought of seeing that cliché onscreen again? Have mercy on the strands and remember that “Black Christmas” came before all the standby horror movie gimmicks, all the yawn-worthy boilerplate and filler. “Black Christmas” is a slasher film before slasher films were given that name. Clark hit heights that later directors (excluding John Carpenter, whose “Halloween” emulated Clark’s film and improved on the score) couldn’t reach. This did not stop so, so many from trying. For horror fans who like their mind games with a side of murder, “Black Christmas” is the standard. Any tricks found in “Black Christmas” that years later became contrivances were done right here.

This horror gem’s plot — essentially “hens trapped in a fox’s den” — supplies sorority girls as the ready-made victims for a mysterious (and clearly mentally unbalanced) serial killer. The happy surprise is that Roy Moore’s screenplay is full of wicked cleverness (Margot Kidder, Doug McGrath and Haldman are the comic relief) — enough scattered laughs to make the scares doubly convincing. And the scares start straight away, with the iconic scene of someone barely visible in Clare’s closet, hidden behind the plastic sheeting he uses to asphyxiate her. That’s an image that has sticking power. He deliberately, almost lovingly, positions her body in a rocking chair beside the window in the attic. When she never shows up to meet her stern father (James Edmond Jr.), her sorority sisters Barb (Kidder, playing the frank-speaking party girl), Phyllis (Andrea Martin) and Jess (Olivia Hussey) seek the help of the police. Initially they get the brush-off from idiotic Sgt. Nash (McGrath), who’s so clueless he doesn’t know what “fellatio” means when Barb tells him it’s part of their phone number. However, they find a sympathetic ear in Lt. Fuller (John Saxon), who thinks the obscene calls and Clare’s disappearance are connected. He assures the girls they’ll be safe. He is mistaken.

Clark prefers to amp up the intensity in uncomplicated, terrifying ways. In the opening sequence, the prowler scales the trellis outside the sorority house, entering through the attic. These scenes — and those in the attic — are shot from the killer’s perspective, which Clark achieved by having his cameraman mount the camera on his back as he crept through the house. The immediacy of this approach knocks out the barrier between the audience and the action. The director capitalizes on other small opportunities to create chills: quick cuts of moving shadows and creaking floorboards; Barb’s sudden ashtma attack after “a bad dream” of a man sneaking into her room frightens her awake; quick shots of the killer’s eye, bulging and wild. Yet nothing is scarier than the pregnant silence, punctuated only by a yelping, insistent telephone promising death threats and incomprehensible shrieks on the other end. When the mere ring of telephone is cause for cowering, you’ve stumbled upon the work of a master. 

Grade: A

Shriekfest 2010: “The Brood” (1979)

Before “The Fly,” there was “The Brood.” In the grand scheme these two films really aren’t that different. “The Fly” deals with the ways disease can ravage and deform the human body, while “The Brood” shows how the emotional trauma of divorce affects everyone involved — much the same way a terminal or life-threatening disease would. In “The Brood,” however, director David Cronenberg pushes the concept into the realm of nightmares. He creates a world where the adage “better out than in” does not apply. And when all the dark demons stuffed way down surface, they come out with an axe to grind.

The thought of “giving birth” to our most private hurts is enough to curl a few toes, but it’s what Cronenberg does with the idea that transforms “The Brood” from weird to thoroughly disturbing. The film — which Cronenberg wrote in the midst of his own custody battle — is standard-issue horror on the surface level, and it’s pretty effective. The bitter divorce and difficult custody battle between Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) has taken a toll on the whole family, including Frank and Nola’s daughter Candice (Cindy Hines). No one is more damaged than Nola, who seeks the help of psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Dr. Raglan has invented an off-the-wall theory called “psychoplasmics,” which requires his patients to deal with their negative feelings and accept the bodily manifestations of their pain. Nobody’s prepared for the fallout from Nola’s catharsis. Damaged by the divorce and by her unhappy and abusive childhood, she produces deformed child-like beings ready to enact Nola’s rage on human targets.

Cronenberg keeps things simple in “The Brood” in terms of visuals and effects, since he intends to elicit a visceral reaction. (For example, the climactic scene — censored in the U.K. upon the film’s release — involves a highly disturbing yet somehow touching display of Nola’s love for her newly-emerged fetuses.) Nola’s brood consists of short, compact creatures with warped facial features, palates too ill-developed to produce anything more than shrieks or grunts and — this is the telling detail — no belly buttons. They look enough like children that they seem to be of this world, and yet there is a blankness, an essential lack of humanity that makes them particularly chilling. The children of the brood are fully capable of adult-sized violence and murder, which is a combination that in film history (“The Bad Seed,” “The Omen,” “The Good Son”) rarely fails to frazzle the nerves. (The mix of small, innocent faces and dastardly deeds frightens because it is illogical. Indeed, when Frank encounters one of these anomalies, he’s as perplexed as he is scared.) These murder scenes are all the more freaky for the brood’s ability to hide out in cramped spaces, like (eek) underneath beds or inside dumbwaiters, or to blend in easily with a throng of kindergarten students in raincoats. It’s a nice reminder that murder need not be extravagantly gory or inventive to work well.

For all the creepy kid-monsters, it takes some time for the second level of “The Brood” — the subtext — to sink in. Cronenberg, as he would do later with “The Fly,” isn’t content to make us grimace and cower; he has a story to tell and a point to make. He prefers to use these images as metaphors for the very real damage that divorce and emotional trauma can do the parents involved and most of all the children. Frank is sensitive to his daughter’s anxieties and wants to protect her, but he doesn’t know how to fix what’s broken. Nola’s pain consumes her life to the point where she loses touch with reality, or maybe she chooses to reject it. (Eggar, it’s worth mentioning, did her civic duty as an actress and took The Unvain Part, the one that requires her to yelp and crawl the floor.) Still, it is Candice’s face we see at the end, and she is the most mysterious (and tragic) character. She rarely speaks or shows emotion. What has all this violence done to her? Is she doomed to the same psychiatric meltdown her mother had? We don’t know, which is the scariest thing of all.

Grade: A

My thought on today