As a movie buff, it was difficult coming up with a list of recommendations for best horror films. This year has seen some great ones. Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise was unpleasant, in a good way. Danny Perez’s Antibirth was an unsettlingly bleak visual feast. Robert Egger’s The Witch was a wonderfully evil folk tale about radicalization. Loveable horror curmudgeon Rob Zombie made another movie, 31, that had some nice moments but didn’t reach the horrific heights of some of his other efforts. There are so many films to choose from, but the films mentioned below (readily available on demand) run the gamut from stomach-churning disgusting to spooky artistry to dumb, scary popcorn fun. As of this moment, these films have been clouding my movie-ccentric headspace.
There are no jump scares or prolonged gory deaths to satiate the viewer in Vampyr. In fact, it may be best to go to the convenient “artsy” description for this film. Since the scenes have very little dialogue and a gauzy soft-focus appearance, the black-and-white visuals contribute to the unnerving vibe. Vampyr will most likely appeal to romantic film enthusiasts. Based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, the film begins as young man, David, spends the night at an inn in a small village. Things get cryptic real quick when an old man gives him a package that he tells David to open in the event of his death. Naturally, the old man is shot not long after. After meeting the daughters of the victim, David discovers a book about vampires in the aforementioned package. David soon realizes the village people are at the mercy of a vampire of their own. When explaining what he wanted to accomplish with his 1932 film, Vampyr, Danish film-maker Carl Theodor Dreyer said, “I wanted to create a waking dream on screen and show that horror is not to be found in the things around us but in our own subconscious.” Mission accomplished.
Basket Case (1982)
In 1982, critic Rex Reed emerged from a theater declaring, “This is the sickest movie ever made!” Director Frank Henonlotter took full advantage of that quote when he introduced Basket Case to unsuspecting audiences nationwide. It eventually attained cult status thanks to its crazy premise and the film’s oft-referenced question: “What’s in the basket?” You see, Duane Bradley carries around a basket looking for the doctors who separated him from the conjoined twin he was psychically linked to, Bilal. Being that it’s a horror movie, it’s safe to say he isn’t looking to shake the surgeons’ hands. Oh, minor spoiler — I should probably mention that Bilal, a fleshy blob with a face and two hands, is what’s in the basket. Pity the poor souls who meet him because the vengeful B-man loves ripping people to shreds while Duane stands idly by pining for a receptionist he recently met. I’ve seen this slice of 16mm slime many times over. It’s pretty much a classic in my eyes. Not because the acting is beyond reproach. Not because the “scary” parts are truly terrifying. Not because Bilal is unnervingly realistic. There are many reasons the movie rules, but those aren’t it. Basket Case is a monster movie that personifies the grindhouse era. Most of the acting ranges from theatrically over-the-top to naturalism of the highest Cassavetes order. The film has a scuzzy vibe overall thanks to many of the locations: an S&M Club subbed as a regular bar, the then-deserted Tribeca area used for exterior shots and, most notably, the sketchy area of 42nd Street before it became known as a family-friendly tourist destination. When Bilal attacks, it gets grody. When he hops out of the basket, it’s wonderfully schlocky-looking. When the organ music creaks in the soundtrack, it practically tells you nasty things will occur. Is it the sickest movie ever made? Maybe in 1982 but hardly when you have films like …
The Greasy Strangler (2016)
“Ugh” will be the phrase quite a few will mutter while watching this latest from the Drafthouse Films acquisition department. Brayden and his father Ronni have a family business, Big Ron’s Disco Tours, giving tours of locales that involve disco-friendly trivia. When not giving tours, Big Ronnie likes to go on nightly murderous rampages. A young woman threatens to tear the father and son apart as they vie for her attention. During all this plot-stuff, a lot of random moments occur. At their Salvador Dali-esque pinnacle, these moments, which could be labelled as horror, are an endurance test for those who enjoy having their gag reflexes tested here and nerves jangled there. Ronnie, in the midst of murdering, eats an eyeball. At one point, the camera fixates on unappetizing food covered in grease. There is full-frontal nudity of Ronnie slathered in lard. There is uncomfortable sex that makes the love scenes in The Room feel positively erotic. Dongs, farts, and gore, oh my! The film puts forth its best effort to leave no gross stone unturned while lurking within a horror film’s parameters. It’s safe enough to say that The Greasy Strangler is an acquired taste that will repulse as many as it attracts. Somewhere between the giddy grossness of John Water’s Pink Flamingos, the mind-numbing repetitious absurdity of Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, the eye-bulging unpleasantness of Tom Six’s Human Centipede trilogy and the intentional stupidity of a Troma film rests Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler. Since the film achieved what it set out to do, I’m still unsure if I liked it or if I despised it. One thing I’m sure of is that The Greasy Strangler is a celluloid nightmare that I won’t soon forget.
Demons / Demons 2 (1985/1986)
When Italian horror auteur Dario Argento produces a film for Lamberto Bava (the son of director Mario Bava — Twitch of the Death Nerve — a film that helped usher in the ’80s slasher film), it’s safe to say that you’ll be in for a nutty time at the movies. In what could be loosely called a plot, a young woman, Cheryl, and her friend go to a sneak preview for a film about unwitting teens becoming demons. When one of the theater patrons playfully dons a demon mask — akin to one featured in the film — her face forms a massive zit that bubbles and explodes. Before you can say “What the hell is going on?” the disfigured patron becomes a demon. Surprise, all proverbial h-e-double hockey sticks breaks loose when the majority of the trapped patrons become demons while Cheryl and a few others try to escape. That is essentially the story. The characters are dullards. The poor English dubbing of the Italian cast only adds to the unintended hilarity. The gore scenes are Evil Dead levels of outrageous. The fashion is painfully ’80s. The heavy metal soundtrack is fist-pumpingly moving. More than anything, what sets Demons apart on the goofy meter are the film’s plot contrivances and conveniences. Say you and the only other surviving character are riding a gassed-up motorcycle inside a movie theater, slicing up demons with a katana blade. Naturally, said motorcycle runs out of gas. What do you do next? What do you do? If you’re in Demons, you’ll likely see a helicopter crash through the ceiling for no valid reason. While there are horror movie nerd references littered throughout the film, what stands out most is how much big, dumb fun is to be had with Demons and its sequel Demons 2. For the record, the plot for the sequel is totally different: You see, a similar film plays on TV, and before long, the tenants of a high-rise apartment are fighting for their lives against a new batch of demons.
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2012)
As with the other films on this list, Panos Cosmatos’ film is readily available on VOD, but, of the films mentioned thus far, it is the one I wish I had seen on a big screen the most. It’s the year 1983, and deep down in an underground laboratory, a young, mute Elana is confined to a single room by Dr. Barry Nyle, a psychotic scientist hellbent on unlocking her psychic powers. When he isn’t taunting her with pictures of her family, he’s tormenting Elana until she goes into psychic rages. Based on visuals alone, it’s safe to say Cosmatos (son of the late George P. Cosmatos, who directed Sly Stallone in Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part 2) has a madman affinity for the body horror of David Cronenberg, the hallucinatory imagery of David Lynch, and the disturbing camera work of Brian DePalma’s earlier films. Honestly, not a whole hell of a lot happens, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t mesmerized. It moves very slowly like the more claustrophobic moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this only contributes to the jaw-dropping weirdness peppered within all the pretty colors, hypnotic synth music, literal face-melting, and retro-futuristic sets of Beyond the Black Rainbow. If you’re patient and willing to succumb to the molasses-paced madness of this 110 minute mindwarp, Beyond the Black Rainbow will reward.