As of this writing, Scott Derrickson’s film Sinister, which opened in theaters on Friday, has made a mere 18.2 million dollars, the third highest earner of the weekend. William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I praised it highly on the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, and cited it as being actually scary (a strange rarity in modern horror film), and full of rich and believable characters. If you need a good spook flick to gear you up for Halloween, and you’re saving the classics on home video for the parties held later in the month, then Sinister will do you just fine.
In a way, a movie of Sinister’s caliber and quality can actually be a bigger and better surprise than anticipating a huge movie and being pleased with the results. A big ol’ blockbuster is a movie we think about constantly for months prior to its release, and our expectations grow and interweave until the film has essentially already been constructed in our collective heads. A blockbuster is a pop culture presence thanks to ubiquitous advertising and self-perpetuating online socializing. A smaller film, though, must (I suppose by definition) hide out in the shadows. I’m referring to films that have relatively smaller budgets, less far-reaching ad campaigns, less star power, and that are released during times of the year when kids are in school, and studios tend to “dump” their less prestigious products. Sinister seems to fit all these descriptions, despite being a multi-million dollar studio film with a big star (Ethan Hawke counts, right?) and a lot of expensive special effects. It was, after all, released during October.
I’ve said this before of movies, and I think it holds true most of the time: I don’t want the movie to give me what I want. I want the movie to give me something I didn’t know I wanted. I would prefer to be surprised by something unexpected, than be pleased with something I expect. Does that make sense?
I am a horror fan, and I’ve always been drawn to horror movies. Most of the horror movies I have seen, if I scrutinize it, kind of came from nowhere. Aside from scuttlebutt about Dead Alive or Day of the Dead, few of the horror films I saw growing up came with some sort of buzz or cultural expectations surrounding them; in short: no one told me to go see these because they were highly anticipated movies. They were movies I saw for the very virtue of their genre, and I was surprised a lot. As such, the horror genre, by staying off to the side and gently landing blows here and there with some nicely scary movies, had the capability of providing more unexpected pleasures than any old summer blockbuster.
Consider, then, the following list. I have thought of a few horror movies that, like Sinister, were smaller, less hyped, and yet struck hard by being of actual quality. You’ll find here some excellent little horror movies that took me by surprise. As the best films do.
Stir of Echoes (dir. David Koepp, 1999)
A little seen ghost story gem. David Koepp (Premium Rush) directed this film about a blue collar Chicago yobbo (Kevin Bacon) who is hypnotized by a family friend, and thereafter begins to experience bizarre ghostly visions urging him to investigate a strange mystery of some sort that occurred in his house years before. This is a haunted house story that is just as much about the very character of the Chicago suburb where it takes place, as it is about the murders and mysteries that left a poor girl left a-haunting. It’s a spooky little tale that, you’ll find, is solid and scary. It doesn’t hurt that Bacon gives his character some real-life weight, rather that coasting on the film’s atmosphere. Plus it deals with hypnotism, which is just cool.
Teeth (dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)
Teeth is one of those films that seems ridiculous on paper. A teen girl (Jess Weixler), obsessed with her chastity (she even wears a promise ring as a symbol of her willingness to wait) finds, when she is sexually assaulted by a peer, that she has razor-sharp teeth growing inside her vagina. What follows is more than a Troma-like attack on male genitals, and actually a tender and careful study of gender politics, the overwhelming sexual power imposed upon pre-sexualized teenage girls, and a wicked vicarious and prurient little revenge thriller for woman. And while there are plenty of scenes that would be particularly painful to the men in the audience, the film ultimately ends up being smart and clever.
Splice (dir. Vincenzo Natali, 2009)
A typical science-run-amok monster flick, Splice, like the films above, gains its virtues by taking some well-worn genre conceits, and doing them up with style and personality. Splice, though, goes one step further, and pushes into some weird, bleak sexual territory (yes, the monster is actually seen as a sex object), causing it to teeter pleasingly on a precipice of campiness. The film is about two young hotshot genetic engineers (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who, without the knowledge of their bosses, decide to artificially create their own living creature, using animal – and human – DNA. The result is Dren, a fleshy sexy monster with hands for feet, wings, widely-set eyeballs, and a tail. As this thing’s parents, mom and dad have to contend with the ethics of not only making a being like this (which much be how many parents feel), but also get over the weird factor of making a creepy creature who wants to bone one or both of them. Yeep.
Orphan (dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)
And if Splice wasn’t campy enough for you, try this wicked little critter, as it swims around gleefully in its own weird premise. A pair of parents (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) adopt a brilliant 10-year-old Russian orphan. The orphan, as one might predict, turns out to be as smart as they had hoped, but oddly sinister and disturbingly violent. And, just like The Bad Seed before her, the young Esther (played by an awesome Isabelle Fuhrman) manages to drive mummy a little crazy by keeping her bad behavior hidden from dad and from teachers. Yes, there are murders. There’s also a twist near the end which pushes the film entire into a wonderfully baffling plane. Orphan is a B-movie par excellence.
Fallen (dir. Gregory Hoblit, 1998)
I’m sure you know this one. Fallen is a film about a put-upon cop (Denzel Washington) who captures and witnesses the execution of an evil criminal mastermind. After his death, however, Washington finds himself being stalked by a new killer whose MO is surprisingly similar to the dead one’s. What the audience knows, but he must investigate, is that the killer is actually an ancient malevolent angel named Azazel who can shunt his mind into the bodies of whoever he touches. This is a cool premise, but, more than that, it’s an impeccably made film. It wasn’t very highly regarded when it came out, but everyone who has seen it has nothing but positive things to say. What’s more, Fallen may stand as an example of awesome editing. You’ll never be able to hear The Rolling Stones’ “Time is on My Side” the same way ever again.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
I try to go into a film with zero expectations, but Sinister really did look like crap. Ethan Hawke, a good actor whose presence doesn’t necessarily guarantee a quality production, is a writer in a haunted house. Dear god, it looked like Secret Window all over again, and nobody wanted that. So I sat on my hands, metaphorically because the seats were skuzzy as usual, and prepared to amuse myself, as I mentioned in my review, by counting how many cast members were left-handed in a film named after the Latin word for, as well all know, being left-handed.
It took about sixty seconds for me to be impressed.
Sinister seems likely to go down as the best horror film of 2012 that isn’t self-referential, a la Cabin in the Woods or Rec 3: Genesis. It’s a sincere film that plays even its jump scares for real horror (it never, for example, turns out to just be a cat). It avoids clichés without calling attention to itself for doing so, something the atrocious Seven Psychopaths would have benefitted from. It’s just a damned good movie, and like Witney said, all the better for having been a surprise.
We don’t get surprised very often in our line of work. We have to see every movie that comes out, we have to keep up with the news of their productions, we have to read interviews with the filmmakers and even conduct them ourselves, we post the trailers and so forth. We know what’s coming, and after years of doing so we have a pretty good Spidey Sense for when something’s going to suck. There are few better things in my life than getting a full night’s sleep for a change, but one of them is a movie that is better than I anticipated. I want every movie to be good, but surpassed expectations are always a treat, particularly in sex and cinema.
Horror movies can fly under the radar a lot more easily than action movies, since they remain one of the dominant genres for first-time filmmakers and independent production companies. They’re easy to sell, at least on DVD, and generally pretty cheap to make, so there sure are a lot of them, and they’re all competing for the same audience, often at the same time. But there are so many facets to the human imagination, especially where anxiety is concerned, that any horror movie might come out of nowhere to give you the chills. Here are six of the films I discovered, to my surprise, were actually great entries in the horror genre. If you haven’t seen them, get ready for something special.
Arachnid (dir. Jack Sholder, 2001)
I love Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies. They’re the last vestige of the old 1950s monster movies, where plot and acting didn’t matter so much as the idea did, and you could get away with just about anything provided a giant spider, ant or gelatinous mass showed up at some point. Most of the Sci-Fi Channel films have to settle for “so bad it’s good,” or at least jokey competence, but once in a blue moon you find yourself watching a film that actually kicks ass on its own merits, and therein lies a film like Arachnid. The plot is simplicity itself: a plane crashes on a mysterious island where the pilot gets killed off by a gigantic spider. A year later, his sister (The Descent’s Alex Reid) tracks his plane down and, along with a small crew, finds her rescue mission besieged by crazy creepies. There’s nothing terribly special about Arachnid, other than it exceeds all expectations. The plot is standard, but well told. The characters are cookie cutter, but well acted. The horror is familiar, but excitingly staged. It’s just the right way to do an old-fashioned monster flick, and I’m happy to own a copy of it.
Cherry Falls (dir. Geoffrey Wright, 2000)
I wind up talking about Cherry Falls just about every Halloween, because people are always asking me for great horror movies they’ve never seen. Cherry Falls came in at the very tail end of the post-Scream slasher trend, when decent-sized movies were still getting produced but finding themselves going straight-to-video anyway. Such was the fate of Cherry Falls, despite a cast consisting of Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn and Jay Mohr (a bigger name at the time), and a really fun concept. Whereas most slashers kill teenagers who have pre-marital sex, the serial killer in Cherry Falls only kills virgins. How the killer knows this information is incidental, because the filmmakers take the notion to its logical conclusion. Once the kids find out how to avoid being murdered, they throw an all-school orgy. But it’s not just a tawdry film, there’s real talent in front of and behind the camera, capturing the teen angst and a bizarre sexual energy that makes it seem like every member of the cast, even the related ones, really want to bone each other in every scene. The scene where Michael Biehn asks his daughter (Murphy) if she’s gone all the way with her boyfriend, and if not, can she go further, is an incredible “WTF” moment.
Into the Mirror (dir. Kim Sung-ho, 2003)
Into the Mirror is a Korean ghost story remade by Alexandre Aja in 2008 as Mirrors, and then again in 2009 by Victor Garcia as Mirrors 2, since Aja’s film only followed about half of the original story. I missed Aja’s original film but found myself forced to review Mirrors 2 on Blu-ray a few years ago. One of the special features, just tacked on there, was a DVD copy of Into the Mirror, a film that is so much better than Mirrors 2, and most other horror movies these days, that I was utterly stunned. Into the Mirror tells the story of a department store security guard investigating a string of mysterious deaths, all involving mirrors. He slowly comes to understand that the store is being haunted by a vengeful spirit, and their story goes much deeper than he ever suspected. Into the Mirror is astoundingly well written, thematically rich and full of fascinating characters. The horror is both inexplicable and carefully constructed, so we know what’s going on and are able to hold the filmmakers to a certain sense of internal logic, and the ending is a real stunner. Into the Mirror deserved better in this country than a Blu-ray special feature. It deserved a real release so horror fans can find and fully appreciate it.
The Ruins (dir. Carter Smith, 2008)
A bunch of Americans go to a foreign country, upset the natural order and get punished for it. Yawn. And to be fair, that’s exactly what The Ruins is: a horror film about stupid kids who do stupid things and get punished for it, but these kids are so remarkably stupid that it’s fascinating to watch. Like a car crash in slow motion, these kids (including Jena Malone and Shawn Ashmore) trek to a mysterious Mayan temple, but when they try to leave the natives attack them. They retreat to the top of the temple and proceed to starve to death, since they’ll be killed if they do anything else. They try to think of a way out, but their decisions are so stupid – because, for the most part, so are they – that you spend half the film reaching out to the screen yelling, “DON’T!” There’s one scene I’ll never forget where one of them falls and hurts his spine, but his friends can’t think of anything to do but move him. The crunching noise still rings in my ears to this day. I’m not sure if this was The Ruins’ intended effect, but it scares me nonetheless, this idea that you could find yourself in a life-threatening situation and singlehandedly make it 100 times worse by being completely unprepared.
The House of the Devil (dir. Ti West, 2009)
I almost didn’t bother seeing House of the Devil. It was a screening way across town for a film that sounded tacky as hell: a babysitter attacked by Satan worshippers. I just hoped the bra shots would be tastefully exploitative. But what I got, to my never-ending surprise, was a film with genuine class, which made my Top Ten Films of that particular year. Jocelin Donahue plays a college student who needs money to move out of her dorm, and away from her oversexed and inconsiderate roommate. She takes a babysitting gig but when she gets there, she discovers that the “parents” (genre stalwarts Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) don’t have any kids, and want her to watch over an elderly woman instead. She takes the job, after gouging them for more money, and spends most of the night amusing herself in the strangers' house. The audience, meanwhile, spends most of the film waiting for her to realize how much danger she’s in. The suspense builds and builds and builds and just when it gets nearly interminable The House of the Devil goes completely insane for an unforgettable finale. A simple story, brilliantly told, and in my estimation it's a modern horror classic.
The Crazies (dir. Breck Eisner, 2010)
A remake of a George Romero classic by the director of Sahara, one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. Yipes. I was not looking forward to this one. The premiere went all out, sending all the critics to the theater in a bus with blacked-out windows and planting audience members who went “crazy” just before the actual movie started. I figured they were just polishing a really, really big turd. It turns out they were just getting into the spirit of a creepy, well-acted thriller about a town whose water supply gets spiked with a biochemical agent that turns them all into homicidal maniacs. Like zombies, but smarter and vaguely aware that they shouldn’t be killing their families, even though they're going through with it anyway. Timothy Olyphant once again proves why he should only play policemen from now on with a fine lead performance, and some of the set pieces – in particular the bone saw – are dynamically staged. The Crazies turned out to be crazy good. I’m still shocked.