This year’s Oscar contenders are finally getting the wide-release treatment, and while you still have plenty of time to check each one off the list, January is typically the time of the year the studios dump their stinkers — like last weekend’s The Forest — so it’s generally best to just stay away from the multiplexes. With that in mind, here are a few horror flicks that can best The Forest in every way imaginable.
The Last Circus
Calling this complex and disturbing work a horror film doesn’t do it justice — at the very least it’s art-house horror — but that’s as near as you’re likely to get to pinning it down. It’s neither practical, nor particularly advisable, to try to offer a detailed plot synopsis of
The Last Circus. It starts during the Spanish Civil War — in fact, like many Spanish films, the war and the Franco regime hang over it heavily in both a literal and metaphorical manner. A circus troupe find themselves — well, once they dispense with the bearded lady — dragooned into fighting against Franco. This includes “happy” clown Andrés (Enrique Villen), who at the time of his conscription is outfitted in drag. He wants to change clothes, but is told, “A clown with a machete? You’ll scare the shit out of them.” That proves more or less true, and Andrés manages to slash his way through a whole regiment before being caught and imprisoned. This, however, is merely the overture, since the bulk of the film concerns his son, Javier (Carlos Areces), who years later becomes a “sad” clown in a rundown circus where he draws laughs by being brutalized by “happy” clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Sergio also brutalizes his wife, the aerialist Natalia (Carolina Bang, whose name appears to actually be just that), with whom, of course, Javier falls in love. As a setup, it’s as old as the hills — or, at the least, as old as a Tod Browning picture — but, oh my, the blood-drenched lengths to which it goes are hard to overstate.
Michele Soavi’s 1989 film, The Church, was originally intended to be part of producer and co-writer Dario Argento’s loosely connected Demons movies. While it retains elements of those films — especially contagious possessions and trapping the cast in a single location — it’s mostly its own beast. And a very curious beast it is. Like most Italian horror, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, nor does it try to. It’s mostly a collection of fairly grisly horror scenes hooked together by a slim plot concerning the awakening of demons imprisoned beneath the foundations of an old church. Visually, the film is very striking, and it manages to build a strong sense of dread. But viewers expecting a film on par with Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994) may be somewhat disappointed. It is fair to say, however, that The Church offers its own stylish — and silly — horror delights.
William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man is perhaps the most bizarre of Bela Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine,” those nine bargain-basement Bs he made for legendary schlock producer Sam Katzman at Monogram Pictures. It was actually the last of the series, and it was released before the earlier-made Return of the Ape Man (1944). Lugosi plays Dr. Richard Marlowe, a man with absolutely no backstory, who has somehow located himself at a creepy old house (the usual Monogram set) in some hick town. He’s also managed to come up with an elaborate underground lair wherein he — with the help of gas station owner and voodoo high priest Nicholas (George Zucco) and a couple of tame morons (one played by John Carradine) — conducts ceremonies to bring his dead wife (Ellen Hall) back to life. Now, understand, Mrs. Marlowe is “dead only in the sense that you understand that word,” meaning that she tends to wander around with no real purpose. The idea is to have the god Ramboona (who Nicholas assures us “never fails,” despite much evidence to the contrary) drain the life force out of the hapless pretty girl motorists and into Mrs. Marlowe. There’s nothing like it.
Perhaps no series in the history of movies ever went to hell as fast as the seemingly endless spawn of Gojira — or Godzilla as it came to be known in the West. Oh, sure, the immediate cheapjack sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955) — which originally made it to the U.S. in 1959 as Gigantis the Fire Monster — was at least seriously intended, but it was a cheap sequel that showed up in Japanese theaters about four months after Gojira. It also had none of the first film’s genuine sense of dread or weightiness of theme — perhaps because co-writer-director Ishiro Honda was nowhere to be found. However, this first film is a kind of postwar masterpiece. And there is very much the specter of the war haunting the film. One of the early scenes — after Gojira has made his presence known — involves people on a commuter train talking about bomb shelters, with one commenting, “The shelters again. That stinks.” The very anti-nuclear tone of the monster movie, a staple in Honda’s films, is plugged into that mind-set ; after all, this is a Japan that very much remembers the terror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When it comes to Gojira, you hardly have to reflect to find the allegory in an unstoppable force that can incinerate people and level entire cities with its radioactive blast.