Monday, October 30, 2023

Terror Season

I'm already back! Time to make up for lost time.

Usually for Halloween, people tend to talk about corny goofball movies or real life terror to try and get themselves into the holiday mood. For myself, I prefer to refresh myself of some of the darker parts of the world we live in, a reminder of how bad it could get and how grateful I should be that I do not share such a terrible fate. There is much value in a horror story.

Instead of posting about the usual outlandish Halloween fare, or overly frothy products that have been recommended so many times, I instead want to share films that hit in a different way. These are movies you might not have seen or heard about (or maybe you never even thought of them as horror movies) that will have you pondering a bit on your own choices between the chills. It's nothing all that heavy, but it does work to keep you on your toes--as all the best horror does.

It also goes without saying that none of these films are appropriate for younger audiences. Do not watch them with any young ones. A guarantee these will give them nightmares.

Before I get started, I also want to mentioned that the 2024 lineup for Cirsova Magazine was just announced, and I'm in it! They are also near the end of their current Kickstarter, so please check it out before it's done.

Without any further ado, here is my list of my favorite lesser known Horror movies worth checking out this season:

1. Society (1989)

There is very little I can say about this movie without spoiling it or diluting its impact, but this might be the most effective horror movie I've seen. It plays off of stereotypes that were tired even then, morphing them into an unsettling look at the border between humanity and artificiality and what being real actually means. And it does this without any ambiguity at all. The title itself is a play between the general setting of High Society and the umbrella term, showing what society actually is--and what it's not.

The paranoia, horror, and mind games, are not quite what you would expect of a movie from this era, but it's also not much like anything else regardless of the time it was made. You definitely won't see where it's going until the credits roll.

Now, this is no art film, it can actually get quite graphic, but that is all in the service of the general theme of alienation, dehumanization, and entropy, a bit of an early look at where we were already heading as a society even then. It all culminates in an ending that might be one of the most disturbing and horrific ever put to film. The pacing might be a little deliberate, but it all sets an effective mood that makes what happens later all the more unsettling. It works better to slowly slide you into this world instead of just throwing you in the deep end.

Warning: Do not watch this one if you have a weak stomach. I mean it.

2. Alone in the Dark (1982)

No, this has nothing to do with the video game franchise from the 1990s or its remakes. This is instead one of the many films that came out during the Halloween (1978) slasher craze, an attempt to cash in on a craze. In fact, it was one of the last from that era--and possibly the best of them all. This one has aged surprisingly well.

Alone in the Dark is about the compartmentalization of evil to keep it apart and secluded from the good. It is a rejection of then-popular hippie-inspired therapeutic reform trend. When the lights go out, you will very quickly find that they can't be put on quite so easy again. There is much Alone in the Dark covers from that insane period of the criminal reform industry, where evil didn't actually exist--it could be fixed with enough pills and pretty speeches. Remember, no one is ever truly evil. We are all the same, in the end!

Donald Pleasance plays the exact flipside of his famous character of Dr. Loomis in Halloween, showing exactly what kind of warped delusion it is that allows true evil room to flourish in a world that has little reason to do so. In fact, the entire cast is incredible, with an a knockout ending that presents its thesis of what happens to a society that thinks good and evil is a whim, a mere fancy with nothing to define their borders. In many ways, this is just as great a watch as the original Halloween, and is highly overlooked to this day.

3. The Stuff (1985)

I've already posted about this before, so there isn't much to add here. I can only say that this is not your typical monster movie, given that the monster, while tangible, is really more of an idea--a concept that is allowed to roam free by a world that just wants comfort and ease above truth and love. In a lot of ways, it is combination of the previous two movies mentioned so far.

Though inspired on classic creature features, The Stuff is interested in the concept of subversion, twisting the natural law for unnatural gains, and shows exactly how that ends up--how it eats you from the inside out. The effects are also surprisingly solid for such a low budget flick. Really sells how otherworldly this thing is.

Many incorrectly believe this is a film about consumerism, but that is missing the core message: The Stuff itself is delicious and addictive and those in control of it will do anything to make sure to justify consuming it, including pushing it onto you and making you accept it as normal. Shouldn't everyone experience bliss, after all? Everything is used as a means to an end to justify pleasure at the expense of everything else. And we know where such a mentality eventually ends up, especially in the Current Year we now live in.

4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1974)

The first thing you might be wondering is why a John Carpenter movie of all things is on a list like this? The answer is simple, this movie is incredibly overlooked to this day and is not recognized for what it is--Carpenter's most supernaturally focused film.

The first thing that should be clarified, Assault on Precinct 13 is a siege movie, possibly the best ever made, detailing a sparse world bordering on apocalyptic (as the 1970s were frequently portrayed) with an enemy force that is more demonic and terrifying than any actual demon he ever tried to put to film after this. The film is instead about the remaining vestiges of civilization in a dying city fighting with what they have left, including a mysterious criminal whose crime we never fully learned, as they must put their differences to combat an evil far darker than they've ever known.

For the type of movie this is, little is outright explained to the viewer, including just who the enemy actually is (as they have no real lines), but with pure visual mastery we are given the stakes, the set up, and the pieces on the game board--and a question of how anyone will actually survive. Just how do you fight an evil that comes and goes without rhyme or reason?

There is a lot to this movie that can't be appreciated if one only goes into it expecting the usual Carpenter mastery of special and practical effects--it is what you don't see in this movie that makes it work. And it is still one of his best films.

5. The Hidden (1987)

From the director of Alone in the Dark, and starring Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, comes a movie that could only have been made when it was and by the people who made it. Think part invasion of the body snatchers, part buddy cop movie, and part 1980s weird horror, and you end up with a movie far more enticing and exciting than you might expect. It is a blockbuster that somehow never ended up a blockbuster.

The film explores relationships inside and out as it also tackles an invasion by those who think little of what makes humans what they are. In the end, we are more than the sum of our parts. What we are cannot be replicated quite so easily, and our protagonists learn this quite well by the end. There is more to us than what can be seen on the outside.

The weird aspect of The Hidden is that it feels like a lost 1980s blockbuster with tremendous set pieces and characters, and a memorable ending that will stick with you. It feels like this should have been huge, but it wasn't at all. In fact, it bombed. It is kind of amazing this one has been under the radar as long as it has been despite how good it truly is. This is a movie more than do for a second wind of popularity.

I'm also not unconvinced it doesn't take place in David Lynch's head. It just has that whole feel to it that's hard to nail down. (As an aside, I also recommend Blue Velvet as a film that fits the season and has a similar idea about expunging evil so that the good can flourish.)

6. Altered (2006)

This one is a bit further apart from the rest in release date, coming out in an era when the genre was more or less in hyper irony mode and falling apart at the seams, something it had been doing since Scream. This movie is a horrific tale of friendship pulled apart by interior and exterior evil, of relationships run through the wringer of paranoia, and a supernatural presence that smashed them like a hammer through thin glass. Some things should be left in the dark.

Altered explores the survivors of an abduction years later as they attempt to hold their lives together and use what little sanity they have left to capture the thing that took one of their own. However, the creature they catch ends up being a lot more than they bargained for. Sometimes the past should be left to the past.

This is a dark film, in a lot of ways. It doesn't revel in postmodern irony and tongue in cheek humor the way a lot of flicks around this time did. This is a serious horror tale of the dark and what it does to the soul, and it's quite an unsettling watch.

Despite all that, the entire thing is engaging from start to finish. Unfortunately, it's quite nearly unknown these days. Hence why I've mentioned it here.

7. Maniac Cop 1 & 2 (1988-1990)

You might be wondering why I included not just one, but two movies in this entry. That's partially because I consider the two of these one long story, split into two parts. You might also be wondering why I would be putting a slasher movie on a list like this--aren't those nothing but excuses for mindless carnage? Well, the Maniac Cop movies (the original two, the only ones that matter) are not quite what you think they are.

The first film starts off as a simple noir-inspired film of a cop serial killer that has to be stopped. However, as the film goes on, you soon realize there is more to this murderer than you first realized, the escalation leading to some crazy places. This spills over into the sequel, which does exactly what something like, say, Halloween II does not, and raises the stakes, turns the heat up to max, and soon enough everything boils over in a chaotic ending where justice is finally served and everything is wrapped up perfectly. It becomes a lot more than a slasher by the end. The entire experience is one you will not soon forget.

Maniac Cop has a bit of a noir tinge at times, leaning a little on old detective movies for menace in its tone along with peak 1980s practical effects to really emphasize the unknown nature of the threat. Because what that ends up being is tied up in the theme of the perversion of true justice and the evil it brings out on the innocent and guilty alike. Only by setting things as they should be can order be brought back again.

These two movies are a strange experience and better than you would think, being that they came out during the slasher movie mascot craze. This isn't really like any of them, though. Thankfully, there is much more to these movies than an excuse of mayhem, and watching them back to back remains quite the experience.

8. House 1 & 2 (1985-1987)

Unlike the last entry I'm only including two here because they are totally different despite sharing the same writer and yet billed as sequels. The original House is a horror movie about a missing son and a mad house while the second is more of a strange surreal comedy about family. You can watch either on their own, but both are very much worth seeing, even if unrelated plot-wise.

For those unaware, the writer of both was involved in 1980s cult horror favorites Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps, two movies much more well known than these are. That said, they are every bit as good, despite how different they are tonally from his other films. You won't watch anything else like them.

That said, they're both good movies that center on the importance of family and home, a surprising thematic overlap between them that helps each of them stand out. It also helps that the special effects are incredible, even for their time. There it little chance you'll see anything like them from their time or even now.

9. Just Before Dawn (1981)

As I alluded to earlier, I am not very big into slasher movies. For the most part, I don't get a joy out of watching unlikeable people get murdered. Unless there is an intense atmosphere (the original Halloween), a twist on the framework (A Nightmare on Elm Street), or a compelling dive into the themes (Alone in the Dark), they mostly end up falling flat for me.

That said, 1981's Just Before Dawn is a strange beast, even for the genre. It leans more on the survival movie aspect but also lends itself to a surreal nightmare quality of unaware normal folk stumbling into an eerie reflection of what they know, much like people unused to nature would feel like if they were stranded on a nature trail. There is a supernatural bent that is hard to put into words, despite nothing about it being explicit. It's the atmosphere and the tone as well as the nature survival story aspect that makes it stand out from the pack.

All that and the final reveal at the end is a nice bow on a film that is better and more unique than you might think. It also contrasts the harsh unforgiving natural world with the world man made for himself quite beautifully in a harsh finale that will make you consider thinking twice about where you choose to wander and lay down your head. Perhaps the world isn't our playground? It is surprisingly effective at what it does.

10. VFW (2019)

This is quite the jump forward, but VFW from 2019 is a hidden gem that deserves to be better known. Essentially a modern take on a John Carpenter movie starring old genre favorite actors, VFW manages to sidestep a lot of the bad trends of modern cinema to deliver an engaging experience. You probably wouldn't have known this came out in 2019 if I didn't say so.

Much like Assault on Precinct 13, this movie is a siege film. However, unlike that classic, this film keeps the apocalyptic 1970s feel but transports it to the modern day with a slightly different focus and concern. The theme is around aging veterans, those in their final days, as they live on the edge of a world that passed them by and one those who came after them let crumble. There are two sets of characters, divided by age. The first are the elderly veterans backed into a corner and the other are the youthful anarchists driven by additions and bloodlust to crush whatever is in their way. It takes a young woman fleeing from them and begging for help among the elders that sets the entire conflict off. By the end of it, who will be left standing?

That is the horror of this movie. When it seems like the world is already over and your life is already near its end, should you keep fighting? Was it all for nothing? The answer is not what you would expect from a movie released in 2019.

VFW probably wouldn't work as well as it does if it wasn't a deliberate 180 on all the bad trends of modern filmmaking. The practical effects, the camera work, the lighting and clear sound, the focus on masculine themes, the clear dialogue, and the ending, are all the sort of things one does not see too much in the modern era of movie making. Given that the whole story is about the aged and the forgotten fighting against the crushing tide of progress, one that cares nothing for them at all, the older film techniques serve the whole experience exceedingly well. It is a movie out of time. And that's where we should end this list.

That's all for this time. Enjoy the season, and remember to think about higher things while you do. We are quite lucky to be alive.

Only two months left in the year to go--we're almost at the finish line. Keep your eyes on the road and we'll make it through.

Have a good holiday, and I will see you next time!

No comments:

Post a Comment