Continuing our list of 31 scary movies for each day in October. On to Week 2!
Sunday, October 7: The Mothman Prophecies
I consider "Mothman" a challenge because it disturbed me enough the first time I saw it that when I sat down to watch it again recently I actually wondered for a minute or two if I would make it through a second viewing. I have seen countless scary movies, but the themes and elements in "Mothman" hit right in my terror wheelhouse: creepy voices over the phone, eerie disaster predictions, and enigmatic otherworldly visitors. Yeek!
For the record I never, and I mean never, want to look out my window and see the "grinning man". I get freaked out just typing the name Indrid Cold (go on, Google it!). Man, I really don't like this stuff. So, watch at your own risk "The Mothman Prophecies", supposedly based on the actual experiences of author John Keel (John Klein in the film, and played by Richard Gere) who investigated alien sightings that supposedly led to predictions of a fatal bridge collapse in West Virginia. The prediction was apparently part of a worldwide phenomenon of similar sightings that occur in advance of some type of disaster. "Mothman" doesn't necessarily pursue this story in a straight line - it's more like a mosaic of interrelated disturbing experiences that creates an oppressive pall of horror. Reporter Klein loses his wife following a car accident; after her death, he finds drawings of a black, winged creature that she claimed she saw in the split second before the car wreck. Two years later, through an odd series of events that includes a span of lost time (supposedly a typical indicator of alien encounters), Klein finds himself in a small city on the border of West Virginia, where strange things have been happening to the locals. These things include visions of human-like beings whose proportions mark them as otherworldly, voices coming out of the sink, and sightings of the same creature Klein saw in his wife's drawings.
It's not entirely clear what Klein is going through, but he does indeed receive creepy-voiced phone calls, and may or may not have some contact with his dead wife. The large set piece at the end of "Mothman" is the collapse of a heavily trafficked bridge over a frozen river on Christmas Eve. We ultimately learn that one of the characters' precognitive dreams foretold the tragedy. "The Mothman Prophecies" remains open-ended at its conclusion; I'd recommend watching it not for neatly delivered answers or a linear storyline, but to consider the possibilities of otherworldly visitors whose motives remain inscrutable to us. I've considered it, and the idea scares the pants off me. Brrrrr... (Tag: Challenge)
Monday, October 8: Ravenous
Don't watch "Ravenous", which weaves a tale of survival on the frontier via acts of cannibalism, if you're feeling even the least bit queasy. Inspired in part by the ghastly stories of the Donner Party, and based on Native American lore of the Wendigo, "Ravenous" follows the travails of Lieutenant Boyd, a soldier who survived the Mexican-American war through an act of cowardice that subsequently provokes both ups and downs in his military career. Ultimately stationed at a remote fort that's part of the country's nineteenth-century westward expansion, Lt. Boyd, played by Guy Pearce, is onsite when a traveler calling himself Colqhoun arrives with an outrageous story: a frontier guide has led his traveling party astray and cornered them into acts of murder and cannibalism. Colqhoun, played with sly wit by Robert Carlyle, is not who he claims to be, and the fort's inhabitants are soon fighing for their lives and their sanity.
The tone of "Ravenous" will keep you off balance: there are moments that feel, respectively, like a sweeping adventure story, a crazy murder mystery, a grim morality tale, and a stinging social satire. There's also an excellent score, contributed in part by musician Damon Albarn, most notably of the band Blur. The music behind many scenes is spare and postmodern despite some use of period instruments; it's often at odds with the onscreen action, adding a layer of tension and rising periodically to an orchestral counterpoint.
Regarding the acting, Mr. Carlyle and Mr. Pearce are well-matched in their performing styles, with Conqhoun's demonic energy and moments of maniacal glee playing well against Boyd's stoic reserve. The aforementioned social commentary is particularly apt these days: the legend of the Wendigo speaks of a curse wherein immoral consumption (i.e., cannibalism) leads to increasingly insatiable hunger. Take away the "consuming human flesh" part (at least, I hope so) and it sounds kinda like Wall Street, doesn't it? "Ravenous" reaches a climax with a vicious bout of hand to hand combat that comes down to a struggle of morality against the survival instinct. And the film wraps up with a black punchline that promises that the conflict is far from over: it's a battle as old as human history, and it's going to keep playing itself out over and over again. (Tag: Sleeper)
Tuesday, October 9: The Living and the Dead
Those who have a low tolerance for movies that leave a lot of unanswered questions might want to steer clear of "The Living and the Dead". The same goes for viewers who are squeamish about medical issues, and anyone who's overly sensitive about depictions of mental illness.
Now that we've cleared out that crowd, those of you who are left should take a chance on "TLatD", a movie that's akin to a chamber play in that it concerns a small number of characters interacting in basically one location. The Brocklebank family consists of father Donald, an aging aristocrat, Nancy, his terminally ill wife, and their son James, who isn't quite right. It may be schizophrenia, or some other type of mental or emotional disturbance that incapacitates James; regardless, it's clear that he can't function as his mother's caretaker when Donald is called suddenly to London on a business matter. But James is stubbornly convinced that he can take care of his mother, and he barricades their huge manor house against the visiting nurse sent by his father. What follows is a harrowing couple of days as an increasingly unbalanced James tries to administer his mother's medication and attend to her personal needs. Of course he does more harm than good, leading to disastrous results all around.
As noted, the end of the film does not wrap things up neatly; in fact, the whole story is open to a couple of different interpretations. But the consistent surprise in "TLatD" is the discovery of true horror in unexpected places. It is painful to empathize with Nancy as she fights off her son's attempts to force-feed her the wrong medication, or when she realizes that he's misguidedly going to place her in a scalding hot tub and she can't do anything to prevent it. She's at the mercy of his illness as well as her own, and her helplessness is terrifying. This movie really belongs to British actor Leo Bill; he never provides a comfortable onscreen moment as James, but his performance incredibly brave, and laser-focused even when his character is spinning out of control. You may not enjoy "The Living and the Dead", but it's bound to stay with you for a long, unsettling time. (Tag: Oddity)
Wednesday, October 10: Fright Night
Last year's "Fright Night" remake has its moments, but for maximum enjoyment I'm recommending the original, which sneaked unheralded into theaters in the summer of 1985. "Fright Night" is the perfect 80s mix: it's a horror/humor hybrid with video-savvy sensibilities, and of course it's got vampires! "Fright Night" tells the story of teenaged horror fan Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), who feeds his appetite for old horror movies via a TV program, "Fright Night", hosted by veteran horror actor Peter Vincent. In a fun bit of casting, Peter Vincent is smartly portrayed by veteran character actor Roddy McDowell, whose output includes a number of horror films.
Charley is confident that all the scares are safely onscreen until one night when he spies some strange goings-on at the house next door. There's an unseen neighbor, a pretty visitor disappears, and next thing you know, the folks next door are sneaking a body out of the house. Charley concludes - wouldn't you? - that his new neighbor is a vampire. He exhausts the patience of his mom, his best friend "Evil" Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse) as he tries to prove his theory. Eventually a reluctant Peter Vincent is enlisted, and he goes from cynical paid performer to faithful defender when he finds his own proof of the neighbor's undead nature. A word about that neighbor: his name is Jerry, he is indeed a vampire, and he's played by Chris Sarandon. Mr. Sarandon isn't a typical choice to play a vampire, but he owns the role with just the right mix of charisma, menace, and arch world-weariness. He's equally comfortable menacing Charley, bullying Peter, romancing Amy, and posing as a savior to Ed.
There are some solid scares in "Fright Night", which may be at its best when it plays up the tension of fighting for your life in the midst of a crowd or being chased down a populous residential street but feeling that you're utterly on your own. It's also worth noting that there's a touching emotional current in Stephen Geoffrey's performance as Ed, who is attacked and finds himself surrendering to the vampire's power. Overall, "Fright Night" is an entertaining story that teases some fun meta-elements but never crosses the line into irony - and that's surprisingly refreshing. "FN" also plays loose with some of the traditional mythology - but then, don't all vampire movies these days? (Tag: Wicked 80s, Vampires!)
Thursday, October 11: The Other
This film is likely to be confused with 2001's "The Others", which starred Nicole Kidman as a haunted World War II widow who learns the truth about the ghostly inhabitants of her house. But "The Other", released in 1972 and based on the bestselling horror novel by Thomas Tryon, tells the Depression-era story of twin brothers Niles and Holland who live in a picturesque New England farm community and may or may not share a dangerous psychic bond. Their family is in mourning following the death of the twins' father, and their mother has isolated herself in an upstairs bedroom. The boys' grandmother distracts Niles from the family's sorrow by playing games with him to encourage what she sees as his psychic gifts. Mysterious mishaps befall family members and neighbors as the summer progresses, and suspicion begins to dwell on the boys - but perhaps not soon enough.
The story includes some impressively gothic dramatic elements - a missing baby, a deadly trap door, the requisite dark and stormy night, and a pitchfork that's put to shocking use - and it's painted with an initially elegiac tone that darkens dramatically as each terrible accident occurs. It's like Ray Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine" gone sour - a look back at a boyhood that's far from idyllic and a community that suffers the creepy consequences.
"The Other" may have some similarities to "The Bad Seed" and its successor, "The Good Son", but it's simultaneously subtler and significantly nastier, with a couple of twists that you probably won't see coming. It's an old-fashioned movie at this point, but one that's definitely worth seeking out - some of the scenes will give you the shivers long after the credits roll. Bonus: If you can find it, the book will provide a great seasonal read too. (Tag: Oddity)
Friday, October 12: Masters of Horror
"Masters of Horror" is something of a mixed bag, and all episodes won't necessarily appeal to all viewers; but I recommend it on the strength of a handful of standout segments. The anthology series originally ran for two seasons on Showtime, with noted genre directors being invited to contribute hour-long episodes. The tone of the episodes varies greatly, with some offerings in the traditional horror vein, and some mixing in political commentary or humor of the EC comics variety.
"Masters of Horror" serves as a great primer on current horror directors, as the entries are generally in keeping with each director's signature style and typical choice of material. Some of the strongest episodes include Dario Argento's "Jenifer", about a disfigured woman and the man who becomes obsessed with her; John Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns", which concerns a man hired to find the last copy of a film that supposedly drives viewers insane; and William Malone's "Fair-Haired Child", in which grieving parents go to desperate lengths to recover their son. Larry Cohen's"Pick Me Up" is a high-energy battle of wits between rival serial killers, while "The Washingtonians", from Peter Medak, posits an outrageous alternate history for the father of our country. Joe Dante contributes "The Screwfly Solution", based on a short story by Raccoona Sheldon that mines the grim prospect of a worldwide plague causing men to murder women. It's a shockingly downbeat hour of television that continued to reverberate with me long after I watched it.
Finally, not to be missed is Takashi Miike's offering, "Imprint", a truly visceral horror experience that is absolutely not for the faint of heart. I actually got lightheaded and broke out in a sweat trying to get through my first and only viewing of the episode. The story concerns - well, does it matter? It's Takashi Miike, and you know you're in for something wild, so it's best to commit and try your best to recover afterward. (Tag: Cram Session)
Saturday, October 13: Cabin Fever
There aren't any supernatural elements in "Cabin Fever" – just bad luck, bad decisions, and a boatload of bad karma. Using the familiar horror trope, "a bunch of teenagers head for a cabin in the woods", Eli Roth, in his directing debut, presents a gonzo-grossout of a story about a backwoods plague that wreaks bloody havoc on a group of vacationing college friends. And the mayhem doesn't stop there; by the end of the film, things are looking pretty grim for society at large.
I tagged "Cabin Fever" as a harbinger because the film introduced horror fans to Mr. Roth, and in the past decade he's gone on to make some major contributions to the genre. "Cabin Fever" is a throwback to 70s and 80s horror features, with lots of gore and black humor. It also follows the narrow karmic rule of horror movies, where characters' actions come back to haunt them somehow in the end. There's an elegant inevitability to the way that "Cabin Fever" puts its characters in an increasingly dire situation and then ruthlessly blocks off every avenue of escape. The plot becomes its own clever puzzle box, where every route that seems like an exit winds up herding the the survivors back into the middle of the chaos. And have I mentioned that it's disgusting? Just so you're prepared – it's not a movie to snack to. But whether you watch "Cabin Fever" despite that feature or because of it, you're bound to be entertained by the sheer, manic energy of it all. (Tag: Harbinger)
That does it for Week 2 - see you next week! And, in case you missed it, don't forget to check out last week's installment.