Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What horror film deserves more love, and where can people see it?
“Bear with Us” is a horror comedy that takes the cabin-in-the-woods genre and turns it on its head. After Colin’s (Mark Jude Sullivan) initial proposal to Quincy (“Even Stevens” star Christy Carlson Romano) is rejected, he decides to do it again some six months later. Not only does he plan to bring some friends along, but he also asks Harry (Collin Smith) to dress in a bear costume. It may be a bad idea but it’s not like anyone wouldn’t have had the foresight to expect this romantic getaway to be a recipe for disaster — it’s set at a cabin in the woods for crying out loud! It’s a weird and strange film as far as comedies go, but I love it. You can read my review here and my interview with director William J. Stribling here.
“Bear with Us” is currently available on Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, DVD, Google Play, Steam, and YouTube Movies.
The 4th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival in 2016 presented a little film that would become buried treasure for nearly a year before receiving a proper release. Oz Perkins’ directorial debut of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” impressed and rattled me with equal stir. The A24 film is a concoction of pure atmosphere cooked at a proper slow boil. As a long-time school teacher, I can attest to the creepiness that is an empty school campus. Perfect editing from Brian Ufberg merges Julie Kirkwood’s simple and overcast cinematography with the ominous echoes of shrill coming from the musical score of Elvis Perkins (the director’s brother, both of which are sons of late actor Anthony Perkins). This creative tone pushes away all gaudiness in favor of stern visuals and straight suspense, qualities that are welcome and greatly appreciated in contrast to its cheap genre knockoff peers that are overly dependent on jump scares.
All credit goes to Oz Perkins’s writing and direction. Certain scenes punch quickly and others to linger with menacing resonance, building outstanding tension over 93 minutes. His script leaves scant, selective, and intentionally obscure breadcrumbs. Not a stitch of wasteful exposition exists, allowing and requiring the audience to make their own inferences. Being “in the dark” is a savory place to be for a film like this. Keenly and decisively, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” carries a nearly strict reliance on suggestion and atmosphere over exploitation. For that, Perkins and company get it and do not need a “throwback” label to prove it. They know that our mental guessing is always more frightening than showing every little thing.
I usually always come back to “The Cabin in the Woods.” At the time I saw it, I wasn’t super yet in to horror films, which was perfect since it’s more of a commentary on the horror genre, anyway. It’s still horror, though. But I was always fascinated by the mechanics of horror stories, and “The Cabin in the Woods” was the first one I had seen that really deconstructed some of the more obvious tropes from classic horror films. Why do characters make stupid decisions like walk down into the creepy, dark basement? Or split themselves up in order to make killing them a lot easier? The answers are ridiculous, but at least “The Cabin in the Woods” provides them, in all it’s creature film glory. It’s a fun, gory ride, and doesn’t restrain itself in the slightest. It goes the distance, so even though there aren’t great scares or eerie psychological horror going on, it’s one of many films that succeeds in turning certain aspects of the horror genre on its head. You can find it on Amazon Prime, or just own it, ya nerds.
Long before “The Shape of Water,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” or “Hellboy,” for Guillermo del Toro, there was “Cronos.” His debut feature, which arguably was the beginning of the current Mexican wave of filmmaking, is a balancing of the historical, political, and religious, and an homage to every film in the horror canon. The film isn’t likely to haunt anyone’s nightmares, centering around an antique collecting grandfather (Jesús Gris played by Federico Luppi) who finds a golden scarab that grants eternal life when it sinks its gold metallic claws into you, but like much of del Toro’s previous work it mixes the fairytale with the gothic.
Del Toro builds an entrancing mythology about a golden scarab, created by an alchemist over 400 years prior, that gives eternal life. The best horror often reflects history and politics in relation to the fantastical. Setting a film about eternal life in Mexico, considering the Fountain of Youth was thought to be in the Gulf of Honduras, is a subtle twist of local mythology. The hunting of Gris by a dying Argentinian industrialist, Dieter (Claudio Brook), and his American nephew, Angel (Ron Pearlman) brings a twinge of political commentary.
The political and historical allusions are balanced by the film’s religiosity (Jesús is hunted by Angel). With immortality, there’s a cheating of God, there’s a desperate appeal to claw out one’s final days. Del Toro, even at a young age, understood this dynamic and flipped the convention. He kept the desperate individual and inserted a grandfather of almost pure good and his granddaughter, Aurora. Jesús and Aurora’s relationship shifts from paternal grandfathering to a fairytale convention of the pure protecting the monstrous looking creature. “Cronos” is one of the kinder and gentler horror films in existence.
“Cronos” can be rented on Amazon Prime and Google Play, and, unfortunately, for a limited time, on FilmStruck.
Without a doubt, Fede Alvarez’ “Don’t Breathe”. Starring my favourite scream queen, Jane Levy, the film put me on edge like no other. It takes a special kind of horror to make you literally pause the film for fear of throwing up, and it’s not even gory – it’s the gut-wrenching sense of dread and fear he evokes that there is literally no escape from. Alvarez is really good at that, he proved it also in his 2013 reimagining “Evil Dead”, also starring Levy. “Don’t Breathe” sees three people, for all their own personal reasons, band together to rob a blind man, who turns out to be a little more frightening than they first thought. I haven’t worked up the courage to rewatch it just yet, but I know it will be quite the experience when I do.
It’s hard to think of a horror movie that is truly underrated, thanks to the primal devotion of the genre’s biggest fans. One that I know is well regarded but that I rarely see mentioned this time of year is “The Entity,” the 1982 Barbara Hershey-starring film about a woman plagued by a supernatural force that sexually assaults her. The film is based on the allegedly true story of a single mother in California who was routinely raped by a ghost in her home. The film’s depiction of this is truly disturbing, especially at time when sexual abuse is a weekly news fixture; it nails the inescapable dread inflicted on female bodies, in the places they should feel safest. Hershey is excellent, and the score is especially notable; so haunting and precise, Tarantino sampled it in “Inglourious Basterds’” most chilling scene.
Unfortunately, the movie is almost impossible to track down. It’s not available to rent or stream on any major services, and the Blu-ray is so rare that it goes for $75 on Amazon. Here’s hoping it gets picked up by a provider soon; it doesn’t deserve to fade into horror obscurity.
Nicolas Pesce’s “The Eyes of My Mother” is a lugubrious tale of dire loneliness and how far someone will go to find a semblance of companionship. The less you know about the narrative details beforehand, the better. Shot in a liquid black and white, every frame is gorgeously haunting. There is a quiet beauty even in the most grotesque images of grisly violence and torture the anti-heroine Francisca subjects her victims to. Through his elegant and precise compositions of horrifying ugliness, Pesce delivers a transfixing Gothic nightmare that crawls under your skin and lingers in your mind long after the credits roll. Available on Netflix and other major streaming services.
“Ginger Snaps.” A dark, macabre, satiric coming-of-age film focusing on two teenage sisters that must deal with one of them getting her period for the first time AND becoming a werewolf? Instant classic.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is a unique and subversive horror tale. Women are often scared to walk home alone at night because men are seen as predators. Amirpour’s film reverses this role creating an interesting shift in a power balance that is predominant in the genre. It doesn’t stick to horror, either. It has elements of western, noir and romance all within its beautifully atmospheric package. It’s idiosyncratic and bewitching with some of the best black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen.
Watch it on Prime Video or Kanopy.
“Halloween III: Season of the Witch.”
It is arguable how “underrated” you can call a film that takes over Film Twitter every year during October with people singing its praises, yet the fact that it wasn’t a big hit in theaters and it derailed the rest of the Halloween franchise makes it underrated enough in my book. A sequel to one of the most successful horror movies of all time, without any of the original cast returning, specially not Michael Myers? It’s such a terrible idea that somehow works. Nonsensical mystery aside (there aren’t any witches in the film!), few films get the horror atmosphere as right as this one. Throw in some great production design, one of John Carpenter’s best scores ever, and the catchiest and deadliest jingle in cinema and you get a highly entertaining sci-fi horror film.
There are many, but in recently memory “Here Comes the Devil” is the movie that legit unsettled me. It’s a horror that preys on the grief of parents whose children disappear and return home as soulless versions of themselves. It’s parents’ worst fear compounded by an even greater, more sinister fear that is completely transfixing and horrifying to watch.
I think it’s gotten something of a reputation rehab over the past few years, which makes it harder to remember just how pilloried horror comedy “Jennifer’s Body” was by plenty of critics when it came out in 2009. Megan Fox was one of the human faces of the “Transformers” series, Diablo Cody had just won an Oscar, both of them were successful women perceived by some men as unserious, and people were just not having it. It met the same fate as so many horror comedies that came before, damned with praise of “not funny enough” and “not scary enough” before eating it at the box office. I’ll actually allow that the movie isn’t all that scary in the white-knuckle sense.
Karyn Kusama and Cody’s film about a tumultuous friendship between two teenage girls (Amanda Seyfried playing nerdy and Fox playing into her bombshell image) that gets distorted further when one gets possessed by a boy-eating demon doesn’t really concern itself with scary set pieces. But feelings of teenage betrayal are their own kind of horror, and Cody’s script, as performed by Seyfried and Fox, is funny, slangy Cody-isms and all (I especially love Jennifer’s habit of uniformly referring to males as “boys,” including assurance that PMS was “invented by the boy-run media to make us look crazy”). Kusama balances the flip and the emotionally grounded stuff adroitly, and gives the horror climax a gothic tinge. Maybe “Jennifer’s Body” falls short of stone-cold classic status, but has a lot more personality than most horror pictures, horror-comedies included. It’s available to watch on HBO right now! Go do it!
I think I’ve definitely given the same answer over the last five years to anybody who will listen, but I can’t not say “Jennifer’s Body,” which was released nine years ago to mixed critical reception and has since gone on to experience a new resurgence of appreciation, especially amidst female horror fans. It’s a film not only about the intricacies of friendship between women, but also thoughtfully explores the bittersweet, self-destructive tragedy of what happens when your bestie gets sacrificed to the devil and comes back as a succubus. Megan Fox is an underappreciated talent here as Jennifer Check, the girl with a penchant for eating boys, and Amanda Seyfried puts in lots of admirable work too as her best friend Needy, who evolves from the mousy nerd in Jennifer’s shadow to the one who ends up carrying out the ultimate revenge against those who wronged her BFF in the first place. Is it a movie that would be received better in today’s climate? Absolutely, which is why it’s never too late to sit down and watch it for the first time (you can check it out on HBOGo or rent it via Amazon Prime).
First things first: 1971’s “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” has the worst, most misrepresentative title in film history. It bears no relationship to the events of the story except that the protagonist is named Jessica and she gets scared. So just ignore that and focus instead on one of the eeriest, oddest horror films you’re likely to see. It’s a tough one to effectively describe, but that’s what makes it such a unique gem—while there are shades of haunted house and vampire lore, it doesn’t fit comfortably into any prescribed subgenre, and the tone swings unpredictably between a melancholy lyricism in the vein of “Badlands” and bursts of grindhouse frenzy.
Very much a product of the post-Manson moment when long hair and peasant blouses could signal latent psychosis as easily as peace and love, it’s a slow-burn tone piece that calls to mind “Carnival of Souls” in the way the more amateur elements (an abundance of ADR, a truly alien approach to pacing and editing) only heighten the sense of uncanny dread. Stephen King listed “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” as one of his personal favorite horror films in his 1981 book “Danse Macabre,” and it’s not hard to see why. Fans of King’s stories that focus as much on character and atmosphere as blood and screams will find a lot to love in this one-of-a-kind curio, which is currently available to buy and rent at iTunes, Amazon, and all the other usual services.
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