There is a five minute stretch in the 2006 remake of the “The Hills Have Eyes” where it was difficult to look at the screen. Then again it was also hard to tear your eyes away from the carnage unfolding before you as two hideous mutants (one with a harelip the size of Kansas) rape a teenage girl and then breast feed from a new mom as her infant daughter gurgles in the bassinet next to her. Then we have the head of a parakeet plucked off and blood wrung from its body, the burning death of a man, the new mom being shot in the head (the blood splattering on the previously mentioned bassinet), the baby kidnapped, and an older woman shot gunned in the belly.
“My God, what are you watching?” my wife said as she walked into the living room and caught sight of one of the mutants squirting the bird’s blood down his gullet. “That’s disgusting!”
She gave me one of those looks and left before I could defend myself. I felt like I had been caught doing something… depraved. And maybe I had been because “The Hills Have Eyes” was one disturbing movie – even by the standards of closet horror movie freak like me. I get tingling at the thought of watching a horror movie – even the cheesy ones. There’s something primal in fear, but it goes beyond the thrill. A good horror flick is a subversive form of entertainment. Taboos are broken. Hidden fears exposed. A good horror movie says something about where we are. I don’t want to intellectualize it too much because “House of Wax” ain’t Shakespeare – but horror films often reflect society. They’re a barometer for our times. They tell us what we’re afraid of.
I don’t mind gore – in fact, it often adds to the horror experience. However, there’s a difference between a genuine scary movie and a bucket of blood. A good horror movie needs to wiggle under your skin, pop goosebumps along your arms, and make you check to see if the front door is locked when you finally head up to bed.
The original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) is a perfect example. There’s no doubt that Tobe Hooper invested heavily in red dye, but the movie spends time a lot of time introducing the viewer to the characters. Hooper also infuses the film with a sense of dread and that uneasiness builds until the dramatic entrance of Leatherface – the silence of that classic scene shattered by the crash of a metal door and Leatherface pouncing on his victim.
Christ, just thinking about it gives me a chill.
Too many of the new breed horror movies give us characters from central casting and a swimming pool full of blood – but no scares. “Hostel” (2005), by the completely overrated Eli Roth, falls into this category. The characters are obnoxious, flat, and unlikable and when they start to die, well, who really cares? But even worse is that Roth gives us a horror movie completely devoid of eeriness. That’s a crime.
Unfortunately, “The Hills Have Eyes,” which started with promise, degenerated into a gore fest and abandoned any pretense of being a horror movie by the end. In fact, it turned into a revenge movie closer to “Road Warrior” than to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
For all of you horror film aficionados, DaRK PaRTY serves up our top 5 favorite scary movies since 2000. Wolf Creek (2005)
The slow build-up to this harrowing Australian movie by Greg McLean could be a case study on how to create tension. The first half plays like a road movie with three young people (a guy and two women) traveling in a rented station wagon from the west coast of Australia to Sydney. McLean expels a lot of energy on creating believable and likable characters – so much so that when the movie finally shifts into horror mode, the viewer genuinely feel empathy for the characters. The terror begins in the desolate Outback when the three travelers meet up with Mick Taylor, a seemingly harmless “Crocodile Dundee” bloke. But alas, Mick, ain’t what he appears to be. At one point, he utters the savagely good line: “I'm going to do something now they used to do in Vietnam. It's called making a head on a stick.” McLean also does an excellent job of shifting the point of view among the three main characters, keeping viewers from settling on just one of them and leaving it up in the air on exactly which one will survive.
Frailty (2001) This disturbing little gem of a horror film was directed by actor Pill Paxton, who also stars in it. There are so many creepy twists to keep viewers off balance. The movie is told in flashbacks when Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) tells the story of his deranged childhood to an FBI agent.
Fenton’s father, Dad Meiks (Paxton), is a widowed auto mechanic with two sons. He’s a simple Christian man who claims to have suddenly received a gift from God – the ability to see demons that live among us. Using his two sons as helpers, Dad begins to lure the “demons” into his house where is murders them with an axe and buries them in his dirt basement.
The acting is top-notch and the writing superb. The film also has the second best ending among the films on the DaRK PaRTY list.
28 Days Later (2002)
Admittedly, I’ve got a jones about zombie flicks. I blame George Romero and “Dawn of the Dead.” But, and let’s face the facts here, good zombie movies are hard to find (see “Resident Evil” for proof of that). But the new king of the undead heap is “28 Days Later.”
The magnificence of this movie doesn’t come from the plot – basically a virus called Rage infecting the population and turning people into flesh-eating zombies leaving only a handful of disease-free resident fighting for their lives. No, the beauty is the world created by director Danny Boyle. When our protagonist, Jim, awakens from a coma after the disease has killed most of humanity, the viewer is treated to an abandoned London so empty that you can hear a pin drop. This quiet feels right so when the zombies start to attack and things get loud – well, you feel like running right along with Jim.
Boyle’s film is all about setting and mood – we get dark, creepy, and biting social commentary. This movie moves fast and yet is so well-plotted that the speed seems natural. Move over Romero.
The Others (2001) It doesn’t seem possible that Nicole Kidman heads the cast of a horror movie. Yet she’s at the helm of director Alejandro Amenábar’s quiet masterpiece. Forget loud and fast. This film echoes Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” and takes its time in unraveling its subtle and complex plot. Nothing is wasted here – we get a finely tuned movie that carefully brings viewers to the mammoth revelation of the final act (the best ending of the movies on our list).
Kidman plays a fastidious young housewife waiting for her husband to return from World War II. She and her two children live in a Gothic mansion on a seemingly always dark and foggy spit of land. Kidman brings tension to this role and we get to watch this woman slowly come to pieces as she begins to realize that her house may be haunted.
You have to be patient with “The Others” and you’ll be glad you watched. Think of it as a film novel rather than one of the “Scream” movies and you’ll do fine.
The Ring (2002) This may be the worst named movie of all time. Never mind the fact that it came out during the height of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and that there isn’t a “ring” in the movie. The title simply misses the point. Regardless, this remake of a Japanese horror film by director Gore Verbinski is a genuine scare. Naomi Watts plays an intrepid reporter trying to figure out how her niece died – and comes into possession of a videotape that kills everyone who watches it after seven days. Watts immediately goes on the hunt and the mystery that unfolds is complex and frightening to behold.
The strength of “The Ring” is that it wisely focuses on spooky and creepy rather than bloody and violent. This is an old fashioned horror movie with a fast, yet satisfying pace. This one will definitely have you checking the locks.