Imagine that the horror movie landscape is a big onion. At the outer layer sit the classic horror films. These ones always end up on “So-and-so’s favorite horror movies of all time” lists; even your Mom and Dad have seen them, or are at least aware of them: Psycho. The Exorcist. The Bride of Frankenstein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rosemary’s Baby. Jaws. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. (Well, maybe not that one, but it should be.)
To go a level deeper, talk to a horror fan, and you’ll discover an entirely new strata of greats. These are the movies that might not be as universally well-loved as something like Night of the Living Dead, but are held up as equals by the people who know their stuff. Argento’s Deep Red. Fulci’s The Beyond. Stage fright. Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s Kairo. Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Layer 2 is a massive sea of movies, with your average horror buff willing to pull dozens out for recommendation and approval.
Now drop five layers to the core. Down there are a handful of late night surprises, the ones horror fans trade like baseball cards. They’re probably imperfect and cheaply made, but for the right person, they can be very special experiences. Ask a horror fan about these movies, and they’ll need to think about it for a while. Each one will almost always come up with a unique list. Here are some recent favorites of mine, in no particular order:
1. Noroi: The Curse
Noroi: The Curse has the dubious distinction of technically being both a J-Horror and a Found Footage movie, although it subverts the conventions of both. The usual suspects are all there: the raven-haired girl who may have connections to the beyond, an ancient curse with terrifying implications, and supernatural entities that manifest themselves via electronic devices. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, that’s fine. J-Horror isn’t for everyone. Noroi is more unsettling than almost any J-Horror or Found Footage movie in recent memory, and is worth the gamble.
Instead of relying on the tired premise of a found video cassette, Noroi’s framework weaves together multiple threads as a faux-documentary television show, drawing the viewer in by building tension in unconventional ways. The fauxumentary follows ‘paranormal journalist’ Kobayashi as he investigates a series of strange, seemingly unrelated events in towns across Japan. A woman hears the crying of babies in an unoccupied apartment nearby. Piles of eviscerated birds appear at random. A schoolgirl rumored to have ESP vanishes without a trace. Kobayashi and crew pull the threads together and uncover the truth, but not before the truth has some sinister fun with them. (Heed the film’s ominous tagline: All Have Died.) If this synopsis sounds dull, I don’t blame you; on the surface, Noroi is a stone’s throw from a ‘The Ring meets Blair Witch’ pull quote. Please believe me when I say that Noroi is a scarier movie than either of those. It’s a horror film that affects not only through gore or gimmickry, but through tone and structure.
There are a number of unsettling moments in this film – the ending is too great to spoil – but my favorite sequence is a well-lit, televised ESP test featuring children drawing shapes to prove their paranormal abilities, a-la the opening scene from Ghostbusters. In it, a young girl with a proven psychic talent is asked to draw a specific, hidden shape. Instead of revealing that shape, she lifts her paper to reveal… something else. It’s not clear in the moment why the image is so unsettling, but it is – and it becomes retroactively more so as the meaning of the drawing emerges.
If you only see one move on this list, please make it Noroi.
2. Storm Warning
I have a particular fear of being lost at sea, which is odd considering I grew up in South Florida in and around sailboats for most of my childhood. The ocean may be beautiful from a bayside lounge chair, but it is not your friend. Humans are not built to survive in it for very long.
Storm Warning’s first act is especially harrowing for me, because it’s one of my worst fears come true – a day trip in a dinghy turns into a lost-at-sea nightmare when a married couple can’t find their way back to port during an unexpected storm. Things get worse when they stumble across a pair of deranged, pot-growing hillbillies. It’s a well-made riff on The Hills Have Eyes, and well worth a rental if you like your redneck exploitation on the soggy side.
Absentia’s strength is a clever idea wrapped around a very simple premise: After her husband goes missing for seven years, a grieving wife, with the help of her younger sister, tries to settle her accounts and declare the man ‘Dead In Absentia’. They soon discover that people have been mysteriously disappearing for years in the same neighborhood, all seemingly centered around a tunnel at the end of the street.
It’s a great movie because of, not despite, its sub-$100,000 microbudget. Absentia understands that some things are better left to the imagination, and it uses darkness – complete, ink-black darkness – to shroud its core mystery. It knows that a strange sound in the dark is far more traumatizing than a well lit boogeyman.
Not quite a ghost story, and not quite a ‘tunnel that eats people’ story, Absentia turns into something very surprising in the third act. There are two scenes in particular that left me stunned. Oh, and the amazing Doug Jones shows up, just to make things extra-icky.
4. Lake Mungo
Another faux-documentary, Lake Mungo follows the grieving family of a drowned teenage girl as sightings of her ‘ghost’ appear in and around their home. It’s the most non-traditional horror film on the list, weaving to and from the supernatural to build a portrait of a family coping with loss that’s equal parts moving and disturbing.
It’s one of the several movies on this list to elicit real dread from the blending of the supernatural and technology, which surely isn’t new. Here, though, the distorted image in the background isn’t always something as mundane as a ghost or a demon.
5. The Reef
Remember Open Water, that true-life shark movie from 2003 about the couple who gets stranded in the water during a scuba diving trip? The Reef makes a chump out of it.
Loosely based on the tragic events of a 1983 boat trip near Australia, The Reef – from Director/Writer Andrew Trauki, who also made the very decent Black Water – follows a doomed crew of pleasure boaters after their vessel capsizes in Great White-infested waters. A quartet of them decide to swim the long twelve miles to shore, and are soon joined by a 20-foot companion with rows of serrated teeth. Luckily, one of the swimmers is armed with a mask, so he can give his companions a visual play-by-play on just how incredibly fucked they are.
The Reef is an intense enough movie on its own, but if you’re like me and have a deep fear of floating helplessly in the open ocean, it will absolutely ruin your evening in the best possible way. The underwater shots of the barely perceptible shark, swimming far out in the distance around the swimmers, are among the scariest images I’ve ever seen in a movie.
6. The Rapture
Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a devout member of a sect of fundamentalists who believe that the rapture is imminent, is tired of just waiting around for the apocalypse. What to do? This film follows Sharon as she turns from vice-ridden swinger to a hardcore Christian who’s utterly consumed with the idea of the Rapture.
Of all the ones on the list, it’s The Rapture that stayed with me the longest. Like another one of my favorites, Kairo (Pulse), it’s not so much patently scary as it is deeply disturbing. Where Kairo poses questions about the nature of the afterlife and depression, The Rapture muses on God, faith, and family, to an equally dire conclusion. Most wouldn’t classify this as a horror movie, but the final frames are shatteringly horrific.
7. End of the Line
A doomsday cult is convinced that demons are rising up to reclaim the Earth, and that the only recourse is to MURDER ALL HUMANS before the demons can get to them.
I’m a bit surprised that The End of the Line isn’t already a cult classic. Without spoiling too much, it’s got a killer cult, gooey monsters, a subway tunnel standoff, and an apocalypse scenario. It’s the John Carpenter movie that never was.
Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the budget or pedigree of a Carpenter movie, but if you’re a fan of Prince of Darkness, you’ll want to give this one a try.
8. The Collingswood Story
Told entirely through webcam video chat, The Collingswood Story is what other Found Footage movies should aim to be: creative, scary, and short. Filmed in 2002, its use of now-antiquated tech somehow adds to its creepiness – Oh my god, is that Windows 95? – and its ghost story about a woman investigating a curse with the help of her boyfriend and a medium predates Paranormal Activity by quite a while. It’s more novel than the Activity movies, and elicits a sense of real danger that the nanny cam club can’t touch. In this movie, our hero is always home alone, and is armed only with a webcam.
9. Eden Lake
Like the also great horror movie Ils (Them), Eden Lake knows you’re afraid of getting older, afraid that you’ll be forcibly replaced by something young. It also knows you’re afraid of being trapped and helpless at the mercy of teenagers. It follows a familiar trope: A couple runs afoul of a group of angry children in the woods, and fights for survival to escape. Unlike the Ils killers, the kids in Ede Lake are real characters, rather than monsters. There’s an actual context here for both the hunters and the victims, which makes the last half more than just 20 miles of rough road.
Have you seen any of these? Do chime in below. More importantly, keep your favorite, lesser known movies alive by sharing them with strangers. Write your own list!
As the daily updates pour in, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Episode VII will be Star Wars By Committee. The story probably won’t be one crafted from a singular vision with character arcs and themes working in concert to present a fully-formed idea, but will instead be a grabbag of audience-approved tropes culminating in a simultaneous lightsaber duel/space battle. And really, a bad Star Wars movie pretty much writes itself. If we just resign ourselves to that, we might be able to have some fun with it.
Let’s wager now, and compare notes in 2014. Which lazy tropes do you expect to see in Episode VII, and why?
Thrust into close quarters by fate, this band of unlikely heroes is out to save the galaxy from ultimate evil… if they don’t kill each other first. Hyuck hyuck! Episode VII’s A-Team will include at least two jedis, a pair of droids, and possibly a female smuggler. Bonus points if the team finally learns to work together during the last fifteen minutes.
Jar Jar notwithstanding, the stillborn prequels largely managed to avoid this trope, but a return to post-Old-Republic politics means more scrappy underdogs.
This trope isn’t necessarily Bad News. Some of the best films in history, and nearly every single Role Playing Game ever made, lean on the Band of Ragtag Misfits as their story center. But there are more interesting ways to craft an adventure than this. Even odds on this one.
“Hidden deep within a cave on Nar Shaddaa lies a crystal/holocron/ ambiguous plot trinket so devastating that it would give our antagonist all the power he needs to fulfill his destiny.” Star Wars has avoided this, the ultimate MacGuffin, so far, but that will only strengthen the writers’ temptation to use it. And it will be used poorly and inelegantly, a limp motivator that exists purely as a plot conveyor belt.
If your movie uses this trope and isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, you should probably give up now. I expect it to make a big splash in the new Star Wars movie, though!
3) An Ancient Sith Evil Awakens
For ages, he’s been watching… and waiting. Biding his time until his plans are ripe. His only weakness is heroic teamwork, with the amount of weakness being directly proportional to the amount of struggling the team had to do before the final confrontation.
This one dovetails nicely with #2. It sorta cropped up in in the prequels, which means that this time the ultimate evil be an amorphous ‘thingy’ like Sauron, or maybe a Sith ghost who finds a way to midichlorianize his holocron (or whatever).
4) The turncoat redemption
Someone in the ragtag band of rebels is really a spy for the Empire, or the Czerka corporation, or is a Sith Henchman, and it’s usually the one with a bad attitude and lots to learn about teamwork. In this kind of movie, they learn the error of their ways and perform a final selfless act at the end. “Holding the line” at a critical point, for example. There’s only 5:1 odds that this character, likely a smuggler, will die, because they need him in at least three movies to give him extra outfits for the toys.
5) Lightsaber innovations
If there’s anything the prequels taught us, it’s that there are a million different ways to use a lightsaber. Expect to see people with lightsabers for hands, spears with lightsabers on the end of them, and maybe a Russian-doll style lightsaber that contains lots of mini-lightsabers.
6) The protagonist will be an orphan
Writers like orphans because they’re the ultimate clean slate, and they’re usually introverts, so you don’t have to think up too much dialogue. It also gives the character a pain template to work from, so when he gets to killing bad guys, it makes total sense. This trope is EXTRA lazy if one of the orphan’s parents are still alive and are meaningful to the plot in some way, because… well, you know. And I say “he” here because the writers will probably view a female protagonist as a risk, unfortunately.
There are too many tropes to choose from, so I omitted a few, like the Reluctant Hero, who is 100% sure to make an appearance here. That’s just not an interesting wager.
A final word: Let it be known that I don’t relish this list. It would delight me if Star Wars: Episode VII was about a pair of gay rebel detectives investigating jedi ghost sightings, or something equally surprising. But new ideas are risky. While the next Star Wars will certainly be full of warfare and swordplay, it’ll play it safe on story to keep kids hooked on the franchise.
And while most tropes are lazy, they’re not always bad. The Avengers was lots of fun, and it includes nearly every trope on this list.
Looper Crime Syndicate: Monthly Project Meeting Minutes, 4/2/37
- Meeting Attendees: Abe, Mickey, Joe, Seth, Mark, Frankie, Mack, Moses, Jimmy
- Meeting Apologies: Kid Blue, Jesse
- Guests: Freddie (New Hire)
Agenda Item 1: The “Loopers Not Killing Themselves” Issue
Discussion: Abe began the discussion by summarizing the problem. “Listen, people: I just looked at the tallies. Every month, we lose five to six loopers when they refuse to kill their future selves.
They just don’t like doing it.
It’s our number one problem, and it’s killing our margins because we spend half of our time trying to round people up. We are in the crime business, not the ’rounding up our own employees night after night’ business, are we not?”
[GENERAL MURMURS OF AGREEMENT]
“So I’m looking for suggestions. Anything. No topic is taboo. How about you, Seth?”
Seth: “I’m thinking the future guys could send back future Loopers along with an alligator or a bear of some sort. That way, even if the present Looper doesn’t kill the future Looper, the alligator might.”
Abe: “That’s good thinking! But the time machines are way too small for large reptiles or mammals.”
Mickey: “What if they gave ’em really heavy shoes, like those wooden dutch ones? Then they wouldn’t be able to run so fast.”
Abe: “I like your effort, but I think it would be hard to find so many wooden shoes on short order, and besides, future Holland is run by Malaysia.”
[Freddie, the new hire, raises his hand]
Abe: “Yes, new guy.”
Freddie: “Maybe this is a dumb question, but why do Loopers have to kill themselves in the first place? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the people from the future just sent back the loopers to, uh, anybody BUT that looper’s past self?”
Abe: “No, new guy. Everybody knows that a Looper has to close his own loop.”
Freddie: “Not to talk out of turn, but why? It seems like this whole mess could be avoided just by having Loopers close each other’s loops.”
[Audible groans from around the room. Unidentified person yells “Close each other’s loop? That’s like tyin’ someone else’s shoes!”]
Abe: “No, you guys are Loopers. Loopers close loops.”
Freddie: “I’m not sure I fully understand you. We just want these guys dead, right?”
[Seth stands up and yells]: “No! Everything comes full circle! It’s the whole point!”
Freddie: “Fine, ok. At the very least, why not have someone supervise the loops? Surely an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in this case.”
Joe: “Aw, Jeez! Would you want someone watching over you while you were taking a dump? Looping is private business.”
Freddie: “Huh? What does taking a dump have to do with anything?”
Seth: “You just don’t get it, do you, new guy?”
Freddie: “I just think that if we had a third party with a blunderbuss waiting with each Looper while they’re about to close their loop, we could save a lot o-”
[Abe smashes his hammer against the table]: “ENOUGH! Get this guy OUT!”
[Two men burst in and carry Freddie out of the room. He is heard yelling “I just don’t think you guys have put a lot of thought into this whole process”.]
Abe [collecting himself]: Okay. I’m putting in an order for wooden shoes this week. In the meanwhile, please, please remember to kill your future selves – and most importantly, have fun.”
People have been drawing connections between dreaming and movies – Oneiric film theory – since the beginning, reaching a sort of pop apotheosis with Christopher Nolan’s Inception; if you haven’t already, do check out Devin Faraci’s NEVER WAKE UP essay. In a nutshell, Oneiric film theory suggests that, like dreams, movies hide all kinds of unconscious goodies even beneath subtext, and that our brains process dreams and movies in very similar ways. Viewing a film can put us in a dream-like state; our pulse rate slows, our body temperature cools, and we give in to images in the dark. This means that a good horror film might have a lot in common with an actual nightmare.
Here’s a variation on a dream we’ve all had:
Inexplicably, you’re a teenager again. You’re living back at home with your parents. As you explore the house, you feel both a sense of familiarity and a sense of foreignness. Something isn’t quite right. The colors in the halls match what you remember, but the rooms aren’t in the right order, and the carpeting has an odd texture… and what on Earth is your old roommate’s Dawn of the Dead poster doing on the bathroom wall?
This sense of anti-deja-vu actually has a name: Jamais vu. It’s a by-product of how our brains process information in dreams, and sits at the root of why certain horror movies can hotwire our fear response, even at the expense of reason and logic. There’s a reason we remember nightmares far more often than we can recall other dreams, and some of the cleverest storytellers know how to exploit it. Especially Dario Argento.
Engage in a discussion about the movies of Dario Argento, David Lynch, or Lucio Fulci, and you’ll eventually hear the term “dream logic.” But what does this term actually mean? Is it shorthand for “illogical and crazy, with maybe some Freud up in there,” or is it there a more meaningful definition? Great horror movies like Suspiria, Deep Red (Profondo Rosso), Pulse (Kairo), Eraserhead, and The Beyond have “dream-like” qualities, like inappropriate music, cartoonish gore, or Kairo‘s impossible (and utterly horrifying) stumble, but is there a common element that binds them? More importantly, what makes it scary?
–SPOILERS FOR DEEP RED FOLLOW–
Deep Red, Dario Argento’s outrageously psychoanalytic Blow Up riff, can help us find the answer. Preamble: I’m not tackling the subtext of Deep Red here. Phallus-wielding feminists and weird sexual politics are better suited for a different discussion, not to mention the Freudian subtext so blatant that it may as well be text-text.
Deep Red follows Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), an English pianist who, while wandering the streets of Rome at night, witnesses the murder of a psychic. This kicks off a cat and mouse game between Daly and the killer. The killer’s calling card? He plays a children’s song on a tape cassette prior to every murder. It is – on the surface, at least – a silly, gory romp loaded with leather-fisted Giallo tropes, and features face-boiling, teeth-bashing, a graphic elevator decapitation, and a galloping animatronic doll. Although Daly gets help from his buddy Carlo and manic pixie journalist Gianna, as a gumshoe, he makes Jeff Lebowski look like Philip Marlowe. Here’s my favorite bit of exposition:
[In an office, Marcus Daly consults two associates about the case]
Parapsychology Expert: Uh… I’d like to add something much less scientific about this case… this business about the children’s song. If you recall, Helga [The murdered psychic] also said something about a house, as well as a child singing. And, well, I remember having read a little book quite some time ago on folklore. I think the title was “The Modern Ghost, and the Black Legends of Today.” The author spoke about a haunted house from which the neighbors could sometimes hear singing, like that of a child. The conjecture is that an act of bloodshed was once committed in that house.
Daly: “Do you have that book??!?”
Daly follows an unsolicited, unscientific hunch of this guy (who is never again seen in the film!), which leads him to the folklore book. In the book, Daly thumbs to a picture of a foreboding house, which happens to be the home of the killer.
This is how Daly breaks the case.
Deep Red‘s plot is just as silly as Daly’s investigative techniques. Much like dreams, Deep Red may be internally consistent, but its logic doesn’t jibe with how things work the real world. Still, we play along anyway.
My point is this: Deep Red is still an affecting movie, not despite, but because of its weak ties to everyday logic. Its Horror doesn’t live in the plot; it lives deeper in the fiber of the film. Deep Red takes multiple, meaningfully conflicting ideas, and merges them together to create a more intense viewer response. A death scene scored to Goblin’s driving funk rhythms? Something’s not quite right here. Christmas trees and screaming children? That’s just unclean. Then there’s the film’s portrayal of Carlo’s lover, who’s played by a female actor, but is dubbed with a male voice. It’s this constant sense of incongruity that drives the film. It’s also important that Argento takes household objects, like cooking knives, a freshly drawn bath, or even a boring coffee table, and turns them into death implements. Our homes are now an arsenal of murder weapons. We’ve all stubbed our toe on a coffee table or been burned by hot water, making these death scenes all the more personal, and merging two very different ideas – the home, and the grave.
But the best example of these “incongruity bombs” is the infamous children’s song played by the killer before each attack. It’s (naturally) a Goblin song called School at Night (LISTEN HERE) and is easily just as memorable and effective as the Jaws theme at creating tension. Unlike the Jaws theme, though, School at Night is different in a few important ways. The shark victims couldn’t hear John Williams’ cello notes before each attack, but each of Deep Red‘s victims recognize School at Night as their own MURDER CAROL. The soundtrack bleeds down into the film, pulling us down with it. And where the Jaws theme is menacing on its own, School at Night is a whimsical music-box lullaby fit best for Geppetto’s toy shop, not a murderer’s den. It’s a harmless, pleasant song.
Or is it? Listen again. Instead of starting on beat one, like most simple, child-friendly melodies, it starts on beat three. It’s always two beats behind, but we don’t consciously notice it. Also, most children’s melodies, from Frère Jacques to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, don’t include notes outside of their original key. The second note in the fourth measure, beginning at 0:10 in the linked audio, is in a different key.
As a result, School at Night evokes an automatic skin-crawl response.
Dreams themselves play similar games with the brain.* When we encounter a concept in a dream, our brains use two different methods of understanding it: feature binding, and context binding. When we’re feature binding, we’re constructing simple, low level representations, like “this apple is red,” or “that car has four wheels.” When we perform context binding, we’re trying to fit these low-level things into a much bigger picture. Why is Janet Jackson eating my apple, and how did she get into my car? And what’s the car doing up on a roof? As it turns out, context binding requires a lot more brainpower to get right. We’re not only focusing on the tiny details, but we’re also pulling the pieces together and fitting them into complicated scenarios, so our brains muck it up sometimes. When context binding breaks down, the brain creates incongruities, which leads to that peculiar something doesn’t feel quite right effect. And it’s typically very memorable. There’s also evidence that “erroneous binding” plays an important role in the Capgras delusion, in which sufferers become convinced that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor. When our waking brains can’t make these important connections, real life can become a De Palma-esque nightmare.
I think that “Dream Logic” isn’t so much about illogic or fantasy as it is about a careful pairing of conflicting ideas. It’s possible that Deep Red, by sending us viral, unbound packets of incongruous information, hijacks our brains in an attempt to unnerve and disturb from the inside out. If watching a film puts us in a dream-like state, all Argento needs to do is take advantage of our brains’ existing vulnerabilities. And I think that Argento’s fully aware of this, even beyond the fact that the killer’s theme song is a lullaby. The film’s opening sequence has Helga, the doomed psychic, giving a talk at the European Conference on Parapsychology in an auditorium that looks suspiciously like a movie theater:
“I can see things the very moment they occur, but nothing of what is to come. I can feel thoughts the very instant they are formed. And even much later, if the thoughts are very long, for they linger about the room… like cobwebs.”
[Helga convulses in agony. Someone is violating her mind with obscene imagery.]
“…I feel… a presence… a twisted mind… sending me thoughts…. perverted, murderous thoughts!”
Oh God! Argento’s piping this stuff directly into our brains!
*FYI, I didn’t pull all of this out of my butt. Gerrans, P. Dream experience and a revisionist account of delusions of misidentification. Consciousness
and Cognition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.003
First things first: Why should anyone read this blog? After all, if it’s going to be weekly dissertations on some schmoe’s favorite movies, shows, games, or books, there are hundreds of better known and well-vetted sources to choose from. Why read this one?
I’ve been writing for the web in one format or another for five years. (Here’s some proof.) This hardly makes me a veteran, but I’ve done enough reading and writing to know when a horse has been beaten to death. The traditional web writer formula – put out a trickle of news commentary alongside big weekly reviews, and wrap things up with an obligatory top ten list at the end of the year – is finished. Opinions are cheap, especially when they’re couched in boring reviewerspeak tropes and hyperbole. Find me a rave review on the internet that doesn’t use the words “compelling” or “works,” and I’ll owe you a doughnut. It gets even worse when you realize that most writers have no idea why a plot point is “compelling” or why something “works.”
And then there’s the scary trend of writers bucketing art into “it’s awesome” or “it sucks” bins. This binarization of commentary lies at the root of fanboyism, and is a discussion killer. To quote my Polish mother in law, “there’s nothing so bad that no good can come of it;” in fact, bad, poorly-thought-out movies can generate just as much healthy discussion as a classic. FilmCritHulk (who is, seriously, 2011’s great new voice) explains this perfectly in his NEVER HATE A MOVIE essay. I’m more interested in why a story connects with us or sends us running rather than treating directors, games, movies, or franchises as our favorite surrogate sports teams. If you’re like me, then please consider giving this experiment of mine a shot.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s a sample of some of my favorite things I’ve written recently: