Horror cinema: A valentine to genre favorites from two admirers
Horror hall of fame
Two Hero Complex horror fans dig through basement and attic for their favorite fear-inducing films. Click through the gallery for Gina McIntyre and Mark Olsen's five top horror flicks. (Picturehouse; Rosebud Releasing; Universal)
'Night of the Living Dead'
George Romero paired drive-in dread with social commentary and created the greatest zombie movie ever made — though Romero's follow-up “Dawn of the Dead,” with its blistering critique of American consumerism — also is a classic. ~G.M. (Los Angeles Times archive)
I suppose the reason I so like John Carpenter's 1982 remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 original is that it doesn't immediately strike me as a horror film — it's part sci-fi, part action-adventure. But in its tone and overall feel of building menace, it is one of the most unnerving movie experiences I can think of. ~M.O. (Drew Struzan / Universal City Studios, Inc.)
'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre'
Like “Night of the Living Dead,” Tobe Hooper's dark nightmare of murder and cannibalism in the American South, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, belonged to a wave of horror movies channeling anxiety about civil rights, the Vietnam War and the economy. Brash and horrifying, it hasn't lost its edge after four decades. ~G.M. (Dark Sky Films)
'Dawn of the Dead'
What I like most about George Romero's 1978 zombies-in-a-shopping-mall movie is that it takes the subtext of so many other movies and brings it to the forefront, as consumerism and the fragile fabric of society come under frightening consideration. ~M.O. (United Film Distribution Company)
'Evil Dead 2'
Laughing desk lamps, talking reflections, Sam Raimi's relentlessly inventive camera work and Bruce Campbell in the splatstick role of a lifetime. This is groovy, indie horror at its best. ~G.M.
There is something just so unrepentantly giddy about Sam Raimi's 1987 erstwhile remake of his own 1982 original that I find it irresistible. It's a movie made by fans of horror films for fans of horror films, and it's a pure delight. ~M.O. (Rosebud Releasing)
Italian filmmaker Dario Argento's 1977 fantasy-horror masterpiece, set at a remote European dance academy, uses the supernatural as a means to bypass logic and reason and head right to a subconscious emotional place while also allowing for filmmaking that is as unsettling as it is gorgeous. ~M.O. (Seda Spettacoli)
'Nosferatu the Vampyre'
No disrespect to Bela Lugosi, but Klaus Kinski delivers a mesmerizing performance as the original vampire in Werner Herzog's hypnotic adaptation of the horror classic. ~G.M. (Associated Press)
I'm not entirely sure if this tale of mercenary assassins, a pagan cult and a marriage gone off the rails is, strictly speaking, a horror film (that's what makes defining the genre so tough). But English filmmaker Ben Wheatley crafted a moral sinkhole that for me became a dizzying gutpunch of a movie in which there are no good decisions, only consequences that become increasingly hard to live with. ~M.O. (IFC Midnight)
Guillermo del Toro's lavish fairy tale might not be a horror film in the traditional sense, but with its menagerie of frightening encounters with real and surreal monsters, the beautiful, tragic tale of a young girl who encounters magical creatures looks to the genre for inspiration. The movie pays tribute to the power of fantastic narratives — little Ofelia, fleeing from the savagery of her daily life, escapes into an alternate realm — and it represents the artistic pinnacle of what a skilled filmmaker can achieve by grafting horror's time-honored conventions onto other genres. ~G.M. (Teresa Isasi / Picturehouse)
At this time of year the cinematic conversation usually is centered on Oscar front-runners, or the best titles that screened in Park City, Utah, or looking ahead to how much money “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” stands to rake in when it kicks off the summer blockbuster season.
But in TV land, “The Walking Dead” is cable’s highest-rated drama. The astonishing popularity of that series owes to a number of factors — compelling characters under constant threat, grappling with what it means to be human in a world beset by inhuman calamity. And also zombies.
In other words, all the hallmarks of what makes for the best horror cinema.
With that in mind, it seemed a good time to explore the undying popularity of horror movies. As the two L.A. Times writers who most frequently cover the genre, we’re both serious horror fans, and not afraid to admit it. We recently engaged in back-and-forth exchanges to explain the appeal of horror as a genre, style and erstwhile worldview.
Gina McIntyre: We were asked to discuss what it is about the genre that we find appealing, and I guess it’s the fact that the genre offers writers and directors tremendous creative opportunities to visualize original, exciting scenarios and to examine real-world issues through a fantastic lens — or simply scare audiences, which for some of us is a truly welcome form of catharsis.
Sometimes brutality is involved, and it’s absolutely true that witnessing humanity’s all-too-real capacity for ugliness, especially when it’s taken to extremes, can be especially frightening. The thing that saddens me the most is when people wrongly dismiss the horror genre as something contemptible with no artistic merit, though, unfortunately, there are plenty of titles that would certainly encourage that interpretation.
I came to the genre early in life — watching classic Universal monster movies like “Frankenstein,” the American International Vincent Price films (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”!) and Hammer’s Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing movies, before moving on to more mature classics — “Psycho,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “The Shining.” I will say, as a woman, it can sometimes be frustrating how seldom intelligent, relatable female characters appear on screen. When they do — the resourceful heroine at the heart of the entertaining “You’re Next” springs to mind as a recent example — it’s a wildly welcome surprise.
Mark Olsen: To borrow a phrase from Travis Bickle of “Taxi Driver” (itself a movie that can be seen, through a certain lens, as a kind of horror movie), my attitude to movies in general is “any time, anywhere.” I’m always hoping for something exciting whenever the lights go down, a sense of being taken somewhere else and seeing something new. And that can happen a lot with horror films.
It also doesn’t happen a lot, as horror, in part because of the die-hard, see-anything fan base, is a filmmaking genre particularly rife with cheap knockoffs and uninspired sequels. Which can make those relative needles in the haystack that much more exciting. Looking back, films like the homemade monster of “May,” the teen-girl werewolf parable of “Ginger Snaps” or the retro cult madness of “The House of the Devil” were all titles I might not have expected to like nearly as much as I ultimately did, which only heightened my enthusiasm for them. In some ways, the presumption of junky-ness that accompanies run-of-the-mill horror only makes the surprises even bigger.
GM: It’s an interesting time to examine what’s happening in horror — I feel that we’re in a bit of a calm before a new storm erupts. Found footage has never been a conceit that I’ve found particularly inspiring — it’s capable of some truly great moments, but generally the stories to me seem too similar and lack for authenticity. But that cycle of storytelling appears to be nearing the end of its life span — judging, at least, from the box-office performance of early 2014 films like “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” or the “Rosemary’s Baby” redux of “Devil’s Due.” Which, of course, leads to the question of what will come next — because something always comes next.
MO: Even something like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has proved to be far more malleable and open to imaginative variation within the proscribed bounds of its essential found-footage concept than one might reasonably expect. The popularity (and return on cost) of films from “The Blair Witch Project” to the “Paranormal” pictures have made the conceptualized “found footage” movie — purporting to have been discovered raw rather than created — an easy go-to for filmmakers and fans alike. Yet every time I want to make some grand pronouncement of “no more,” I’ll see something like the two “V/H/S” anthology films or the upcoming “The Sacrament” (not technically “found” footage but rather a fake documentary) and my interest is revived.
And a word about remakes. The practice of remaking horror films, as just last year saw the classics “Evil Dead” and “Carrie” redone, makes sense from a business standpoint if not always an artistic one. Yet again, every time you want to decry the very idea, along comes something like Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are,” a remake of a recent Mexican film, which showcases everything fantastic about horror filmmaking, a tense, gripping study of family that just also happens to be soaked in blood.
GM: The trouble I find is that even when they are well done — I enjoyed what Fede Alvarez did with his “Evil Dead” — they can’t help feeling disappointing on some level. They never have the benefit of feeling entirely new or surprising, and not knowing what’s ahead, the mystery of the story, is part of the fun of watching horror. When you’re just waiting for certain moments to arrive, to see how a filmmaker might handle a memorable sequence, the viewing experience is lessened somehow. But, of course, these films are made for the larger — and younger — public, many of whom never saw the original versions.
MO: I recently wrote about some of the genre surprises that came out of Sundance this year, including the New Zealand vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows.” Besides “The Sacrament,” other films I’m looking forward to this year include Scott Derrickson’s occult thriller “Deliver Us From Evil,” Gareth Edwards’ leap from low-budgets to the brand name of “Godzilla,” the disturbing sci-fi of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and the irrepressible Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia’s “Witching and Bitching.”
GM: I’m looking forward to “Oculus,” a supernatural mystery. I’m also eager to catch up with “The Babadook,” the Australian film from debut writer-director Jennifer Kent, which recently premiered at Sundance; the trailer alone was unsettling in the best way. And then there’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s film with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as bohemian vampires. There’s nothing better than art house vampires.
WHY IS IT FUN TO BE SCARED?
MO: The question “Why is it fun to be scared?” was posed by one of our editors who is not much of a fan of horror films. And I would counter that the exact reason it is fun to be scared at the movies is because it is not fun to be scared in real life. Horror movies provide something of a psychological release valve for the anxiety and fears of the real world, creating a safe space in which to explore the strangest outer limits of imagination and the darkest inner reaches of our own psyches.
Even if the killer escapes or the monster lives, the movie ends and we can go back to our lives safe and sound. Whereas actual evil, the dark, ugly aspects of life that quickly become a moral quagmire with no end or solution, that freaks me out far more than anything I have ever encountered on the screen. And I for one find I need the darkened playground and the safe space of horror to even contemplate such things.
GM: You mentioned “May” and “We Are What We Are,” which I found to be exceptionally inventive stories, and in the case of Jim Mickle’s upstate New York-set retelling of the Mexican film “Somos Lo Que Hay,” one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years. It’s slow and somber, a nightmarish chamber piece that builds to an unforgettable crescendo — the horror movie answer to a Nick Cave song.
It’s those quiet, haunting movies that for me have the most lasting impact, films such as the masterful vampire tale “Let the Right One In,” the equally compelling ghost story “The Orphanage” or Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” with its traumatic, gut-punch conclusion. The real reason to go to the movies is to be moved, to feel something. Watching these films, it’s impossible not to feel something.
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