Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer's <em>The Black Cat </em>
Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat
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As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies, delighted in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring complacent squares to death. Scared me, too, but deep down I confess I've always been primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves, and aliens broke all the rules. What liberating joy when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!

Movies that come oozing up out of the darkness behind the brain seriously freak most people out. So how come we love hair-raisers? Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but real genre classics) ... and coming back a little less sane, never again quite as existentially secure, but still alive and kicking. It's a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving a descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that we do not have to go gentle into that dark night.

So this Halloween, give yourselves up to nightmare and the gruesome company of a slew of Witches, Werewolves, Vampires, Zombies, Things, and Ghosts.
 

The Witching Hour

For witches, warlocks and wizards, the boundaries between good and evil, the living and the dead, white and black magic have ceased to exist. They can conjure bright, utopian dreams or magick us into the very heart of darkness. Powered by unholy sorcery and sometimes inhuman beauty, they flit through our imaginations like eldritch superstars from our pagan past.

The Black Cat (1934)
      Mad genius Hjalmar Poelzig’s erected a Frank Lloyd Wright–style house, graced with startlingly modern curves and angles, on a crag where a fort once stood. Decades ago, General Poelzig (Boris Karloff) betrayed that fort to the enemy, and now a survivor, suave Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), whose wife Poelzig coveted, has returned for vengeance. Karloff—his bristling brush-cut rising in a stark V from his gloriously high forehead, a wolfish smile occasionally breaking his skull-like impassivity, his flesh corpse white—looks like a dry run for The Joker, or a dead man walking. Pounding out mad organ music, hosting satanic rites, playing chess with Lugosi for the lives of two American honeymooners who’ve stumbled into this Gothic revenge tale—black-clad, sibilant-voiced Karloff dominates Cat's nightmare ballet.

The Sorcerers (1967)
      Not long before his death, Karloff is a magnificent, hollow-eyed ruin as an old scientist who cons a bored playboy into acting as guinea pig for a new invention involving hypnosis: “Intoxication with no hangover, ecstasy with no conscience." Professor Monserrat and his mummy-like wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) find that they not only control their subject but also vicariously experience whatever he’s up to. (High shot: the oldsters face each other across a round table, jacked into virtual reality, their arthritic hands clawing orgasmically at the faded tablecloth.) Monserrat sees his machine as a boon to old people, who will enjoy the pleasures of youth through surrogates. Estelle’s got other ideas: she wants “to use our boy” for her own fun and gain: "We all want to do things deep inside ourselves. Things we can't allow ourselves to do. But now we have the means ... without the fear of the consequences!"

Black Sunday (1960)
      Originally titled The Mask of Satan, this minimalist b&w masterpiece opens in a fogbound forest of blasted trees, artfully composed of black limbs splayed like skeletal claws. Hooded silhouettes bind a dark-maned witch (Barbara Steele) to a stump, then sledgehammer a grotesque mask—spiked inside—into her snarling face. The evil that is Princess Asa Vajda lies entombed for two centuries till awakened by a few drops of accidentally spilled blood. The Queen of Horror’s burning eyes and lush lips project such amoral appetite, it seems she’ll devour every mortal morsel within reach. (No surprise that Tim Burton wanted to remake this classic—picture Burton-squeeze Helena Bonham Carter mutating from corpse bride to undead witch!)

Suspiria (1977)
      A waxworks Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) heads a prestigious dance academy, occasionally disappearing with her staff of weirdos into parts unknown within the huge, maze-like mansion. When American student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives during a driving rainstorm, she runs into one of the many attractive young women who will die in spectacularly bloody ways in Suspiria (like Poe, Argento considers the death of a beautiful woman an artist’s most provocative subject). Strange goings-on at the academy escalate: a plague of squirming maggots drops through the ceilings, Suzy’s new friend falls fatally into a roomful of barbed wire. But, trust me, it’s not the slight storyline that ensnares the viewer but this Grimm fairy tale’s voluptuous, candy-apple colors and  textures, its fever-dream lighting and hallucinatory design—all of which seem possessed of malign, lubricious appetite. In every sanity-eroding scene, Suspiria’s eerie score, a theramin-flavored, otherworldly droning, tickles and thrums the nerve endings. Style makes substance superfluous in Argento’s supersensual head-trip.

The Haunted Palace (1963)
      This deliriously miscegenated tale comes courtesy of the diseased imaginations of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, horrormeister Roger Corman, and the late, great Vincent Price (Edward Scissorhands’—and Tim Burton’s—muse). Warlock Joseph Curwen calls beautiful young women from the village of Arkham to sleepwalk through the cemetery to his New England “palace,” where he encourages an abomination that hangs out in a storm drain down in the basement to violate them—all in hopes of re-populating the world with the Dark Gods. Fed up, the Arkhamites burn Curwen alive—but not before he curses everyone in sight. A hundred or so years later, Charles Dexter Ward and his beautiful wife (Debra Paget) arrive in Arkham, having inherited Curwen’s castle. When Ward stares at a lurid painting of Curwen, his face appears—sans F/X—to grow longer, harder, and super-lustful. Soon he’s morphed into a busy warlock, trying to rape wifey, raise his old mistress from the dead, and exploit the noxiously evil Necronomicron.

Excalibur (1981)
      Merlin (Nicol Williamson) incarnates the imaginative, ameliorative power of the artist, specifically director and scriptwriter. Marrying nature and artifice, Merlin’s cloaked in thick, ravelly robes woven of something like dark-green grass and wears a shining skullcap that seems to reflect both the dreams and nightmares of his genius. Half-god, half-prankster, he manipulates metaphysical weather and directs his cast of mythic characters—always “writing” humankind closer and closer toward civilization. He chafes at the all-too-human lust that drives his heroes into disaster, delights in young Arthur’s improvisations (“I never saw that!”), but feeds the boy his lines when necessary. Eventually this wizard dissolves into dream, having worked his own undoing: the coming of civilization and its “gifts” mark the end of his power as a mythic, mostly pagan, force.

Lord of the Rings (2001–2003)
      In Peter Jackson's mythic saga of Good vs. Evil, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is introduced as a genial grandsire, gray-bearded and -maned, swathed in a voluminous robe, topped with a broad-brimmed, pointed wizard’s hat (its tip perennially wilted). Mythic tales often split characters in two, externalizing inner conflict: Frodo has his Gollum and Gandalf his Saruman. Seeking advice from Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), his elder in wizardry, Gandalf sees into his mentor's black heart—Saruman's whiteness emblemizes not innocence, but the color of death and loss. Whipped away by the monstrous Balrog’s fiery tail, the old wizard goes down to hell and death, and is then re-born as Gandalf the White, mythic renunciation of Saruman’s false purity. At the end of The Two Towers, the Christ-like wizard—mounted on a gleaming white steed—seems to rise over the hill like the sun itself, as he and his reinforcements arrive to turn the tide of battle.

Further witchery: Day of Wrath (1943), City of the Dead/Horror Hotel (1960), Burn Witch Burn (1962), The Sorcerers (1967), Witchfinder General (1968), Suspiria (1977), Sorceress (1987), Witches of Eastwick (1987), Warlock (1989), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

 

Satanspawn

His Satanic Majesty rarely appears in person on the silver screen. The Lord of Lies ain't camera-shy—but the most imaginative director finds it damnably difficult to conjure up something grand or soul-shriveling enough to embody stone-cold metaphysical Bad. Horned whackjobs in red underwear who brandish pitchforks while dipping the damned into red-hot magma are so last century. Nowadays, Lucifer looks more and more like us—concierge, CEO, lawyer, politician—the badder the better.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
      In this sharp parable about an American Eden threatened by rampant greed and capitalism, a poor, good-hearted farmer sells his soul to Mr. Scratch for gold and power. Scratch is a New England devil through and through, kin to the "confidence man" who sows mischief in so many American tall tales. Wool-capped, with bushy sideburns and an unshaved chin that itches him a good deal, Walter Huston makes his soul-stealer a grinning, loud-mouthed gladhander, tickled to death watching folks sink in sin. Yankees have always been suspicious of the foreign born, and here the devil's minion is feline and French (adorable Simone Simon). But Mr. Scratch isn't all rustic fun and games: the American jury he conjures up at lawyer Daniel Webster's request to judge the young farmer is comprised of despairing wraiths like Benedict Arnold, Major Walter Butler—an army officer who massacred Indians—and assorted villains who have variously poisoned the New Land. Checkmated, Mr. Scratch cuts his losses and moves on, a cheerful shark.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)
      When Ernst Lubitsch’s Lucifer (Laird Cregar) welcomes just-deceased Henry Van Cleeve (Don Ameche) to Hell, his deliciously suave style and charm epitomize the director's famously Continental "touch": "I trust you didn't suffer much." "Very kind of you to receive me, Your Excellency." These two formally dressed men of the world might be sharing after-dinner cigars in a drawing room rather than discussing Henry's eternal damnation. Enthroned behind a massive desk, surrounded by a library of huge record books, this Dark Prince looks like a tycoon—or the solicitous host of an elegant hotel. Sporting a fine head of shining black hair (with a wicked widow's peak, of course) and precisely trimmed goatee, he possesses a voice of such urbane resonance and sheen it sounds like sliding silk. There's just the slightest hint of something devilishly avid in his suddenly toothy smile as he invites Henry to tell the story of his misspent life—a story of such innocent, sweet "sin" that this eminently civilized devil must regretfully turn his guest away: "We don't cater to your class of people ... you must make your reservations elsewhere." That’s class, folks—the best of show in the Mephistophelean sweepstakes!

Bedazzled (1967)
      Peter Cook's soigné Lucifer is London mod and Carnaby Street, a velvet-suited, silk-caped twit sporting a Beatles mop, retro shades and an upper-class nasal drawl. His notion of infernal mischief runs to tearing out the final pages of Agatha Christie mysteries and firing off pigeons to poop on passing clergymen. Dudley Moore, having plumbed the depths of nerddom, is trying to off himself when Cook drops by to offer seven hot wishes in exchange for his nebbishy soul. Sit back and relish the hilariously deadpan pitch-and-catch between superb comics Cook and Moore as the seven wished-for scenarios sink ever deeper into surreal silliness. When Bedazzled's double-crossed devil disses the Deity—"You great git!"—God cracks up. So will you.

Prophecy (1997)
      Another war is brewing between Heaven and Hell, and this time the angel Gabriel (Christopher Walken, weirding it up as usual) has had enough. Tired of playing second fiddle to the "talking monkeys" God's so freakin' fond of, he'd like to return to the days when "He loved us best." (He and Tilda Swinton's great-winged Gabriel in Constantine would make a terrific power couple!) Gabe's hubris gets so out of hand, he raises Hell—that is, Lucifer. Perched on a post like a big, black-plumaged bird of prey, beautiful Viggo Mortensen is all long-haired, soft-voiced, doe-eyed seducer. But this devil's something else again when he reaches into Gabriel's chest, tears out the angel’s heart and devours it—uttering a chilling little urp of satisfaction as he swallows.

Passion of the Christ (2004)
      Mel Gibson doesn’t truck with popcult irony, horror-movie cliché or New Age euphemism: he's dead serious when it comes to the Satan who tempts Christ to ditch the whole suffering-for-humankind shtick. It's the hour of the wolf, the air thick with blue mist, when the devil's hooded figure slides into frame to dispatch a little snake of doubt Jesus' way. The androgynous beauty of Lucifer's face is like a death's head scoured of character, compassion, everything but a taste for carrion souls. Think of Fellini's Casanova, Bergman's chess-playing Death, a high-fashion model dreaming of food. While Christ is being flogged to bloody pulp, the devil passes through the watching crowd, a hideous homunculus clasped in its arms: a nauseating parody of madonna and child. The infant demon turns its ancient, wizened face toward Jesus and smiles. Curdles the blood.

Devils second class: The Devil's Rain (1975), Time Bandits (1981), Legend (1985), Angel Heart (1987), Needful Things (TV, 1993), Devil's Advocate (1997), South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999), The Ninth Gate (1999), Constantine (2005)

 

Vampires to Die For

“The blhuuud eese ze life!” hissed Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931), declaring his dark creed in the ripest of Old World accents. And why not? “Bleeding”—with or without leeches—was once considered a cure for what ailed you, and the vampire’s crimson kiss, with its promise of immortality, blasphemously mirrors the Christian rite of Communion: “Whoever drinks my blood has eternal life.” These suave Transylvanian seducers offer forbidden pleasure, a double whammy for mesmerized ladies: a sophisticated Continental who can get you to heaven, sexually speaking—and guarantee eternal youth.

Nosferatu (1922)
      Here's an undead thing that might have crawled out of an abandoned root cellar after centuries curled in the dark: bat ears bracket a white, skull-like face narrowing to a mouth sporting two long rat teeth. Humped, its etiolated body seems boneless, while hideously extended claws adorn its snakelike fingers, No charming lover here, only a repulsive Otherness (Max Schreck) that spreads plague wherever its unclean shadow falls. Schreck’s prey, a good woman yoked happily to a great sexless puppy of a husband, saves the day by keeping Nosferatu up past his bedtime—until the sun dissolves him in light. The real horror is that for sexual puritans this grotesque weed raised the spectre of female libido.

Daughters of Darkness (1971)
      As Elizabeth Bathory, delectable Delphine Seyrig (of Last Year at Marienbad fame) slinks languidly about a largely deserted seaside hotel in retro couture that might have graced Dietrich or Garbo. Her blond hair Marcelled into a glamorous Twenties bob, her lips redder than blood, she wraps her velvety voice around some hapless honeymooners, mesmerizing them as she savors the horrors she visited on the Transylvanian virgins whose blood once kept her young and beautiful. What’s most striking about Seyrig’s vamp is her breathy delight in new female conquests, her almost innocent desire to be admired and loved even as she sucks you dry.

Dracula (1979)
      Frank Langella's vampire traces his bloodlines back to brooding heroes in Gothic novels, sexually magnetic but driven by some dark secret, and to the sensitive, yet impossibly virile lovers of the contemporary romance novel. Shipwrecked, this Dracula’s first introduced in closeup: his slow hand rises to caresses the luxurious fur of a wolf, signaling eroticism rather than evil as his raison-d’être. With his mane of electric black hair, heated gaze, sensual mouth, and purring voice, Langella makes every other male in the (Victorian) vicinity look the weak, sexless fool. After he transports Kate Nelligan’s independent-minded beauty into molten ecstasy, the lady’s ready to follow her passionate soulmate anywhere.

Near Dark (1987)
      Kathryn Bigelow's vampire coven lives on the run, getting its bloody kicks and calories in Southwestern juke joints and hicktowns. Tricked up in leather, peroxided and Mohawked, this lowdown “family” is fathered by Jesse Hooker (a superb Lance Henriksen, playing Hooker as a buckskinned badman out of America’s bloody past—Jesse James, perhaps?). This ultra-feral clan looks like leftover dregs from drive-in Westerns, biker movies and horrorshows. When their sad-eyed siren (Jenny Wright) falls for an all-American boy (Adrian Pasdar), it’s a faceoff between lurid outlaw life in an endless road-movie and home sweet home in the Heartland. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
      Francis Ford Coppola's 15th-century Dracul (Gary Oldman) shape-changes into nearly every form dreamed up by decades of vampire movies. Beginning as a crimson-armored, savage defender of the Cross against the Scimitar, he's driven by grief over his dead wife to renounces Christ’s redeeming blood for a vampire’s wine. Welcoming Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) into his lair, Dracula’s all ancient, parchment-skinned androgyny, swathed in red satin robes, topped with sci-fi protuberances of colorless hair. Deliciously, his wall-spanning shadow often acts out, id-like, impulses momentarily suppressed by the vampire. Later, he’s a mangy werewolf viciously raping a red-headed beauty on a garden bench; an effete 19th-century dandy, gussied up in top hat over very long, wavy hair, shades, perfectly coordinated gray suit and ascot; lusty lover arching in naked ecstasy as his reincarnated Elisabet (Winona Ryder) sucks from an opened vein; a towering bat-demon dissolving into a waterfall of rats.

Habit (1997)
      Like Cronenberg, writer-director-editor-actor Fessenden often works the horror genre to expose our need—and incapacity—for love. Sam’s an alcoholic bohemian, adrift in the mostly impersonal environs of New York. His emotional fecklessness has just driven his live-in girlfriend away, so he’s eager to hook up with an androgynous, oddly exotic brunette he meets at a party. Their lovemaking is ultra-passionate and frequent, and Sam begins to notice what he thinks are bite-marks on his body, along with feeling generally drained of energy. Yes, all the signs of vampire love—but is it? Could Sam have AIDS? Delirium tremens? Could our sexual vagrant be overreacting to his fear of something more than skin-deep connection? Habit’s deliciously scary, rife with spooky detail, and the line between vampirism and problematic human love remains tantalizingly blurred.

Let the Right One In (2008)
      A sweet, dangerous love story between a teenaged drinker of blood and a prepubescent boy, lonely, much-bullied and full of fury. Feral and amoral, the girl-vampire is touched by human loneliness that mirrors her own. Playing out in wintry Stockholm streets dark with what seems permanent night, this movie takes its bloody time, constantly surprising us with imaginative images of horror, like carmine splashes on snow or a roomful of maddened cats, turned savage by the scent of a tainted human. There’s gore and terror galore in this Grimm fairy tale, but the terrible tenderness that binds an outcast Hansel and Gretel can’t help but bewitch you. 

Toothsome alternatives: Dracula (1931), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Lifeforce (1985), Dance of the Damned (1989), Nadja (1994), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV, 1997–2003)

 

Running with the (Were)Wolves

On the horror movie circuit, werewolves are low-rent monsters. Trapped in the same old shaggy fur coat, these dawgs get pushed to the wall by glam vamps (see the Twilight saga). And the Wolf Man’s no sexual sophisticate like the vampire, who invades proper drawing rooms to heat the blood of Victorian maidens. This hirsute fellow is more likely to wolf a woman down than nibble her into eternal life. No, the man in wolf’s clothing resurrects the shape and unfettered vitality of our wilder ancestors. Freed from civilization’s cage, the werewolf revels in a predator’s splendid grace and power as he lopes through the forests and urban jungles of our imaginations.

The Wolf Man (1941)
      “Even a man who is pure of heart / and says his prayers by night / may become a wolf / when the wolfbane blooms / and the autumn moon is bright.” That famous doggerel resonates with the melancholy that makes The Wolf Man so moving, even tragic. An innocent abroad, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) falls victim to an accidental infection (Bela Lugosi, playing werewolf, mauls him) in a mist-filled black forest straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. Chaney plays Talbot as a baffled bear of a man, caught between his ultra-rational dad (Claude Rains), an English lord backed up by lawman and shrink, and the dark mystery guarded by an ancient gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya). Talbot’s descent into involuntary savagery seems a cruel jest on a gentle, overgrown American boy whose long-delayed homecoming dead-ends in Old World nightmare, beaten to death with a silver-handled cane by his own father.

Wolfen (1981)
      Legend has it that Native Americans lived symbiotically with a race of godlike wolves, in a paradise despoiled by the coming of greedy white men. Now, the noble wolfen den up in urban wastelands, feeding on the diseased homeless while hard-drinking Indians dance “on the steel,” building great bridges. Burnt-out detective Albert Finney is tapped to investigate the slaughter of a tycoon (and his wife) who planned to transform crumbling projects into expensive high-rises. (This bravura opening scene features a coked-up Manhattan prince and princess drifting around an enchanted Battery Park, the night thick with eerie possibility and silence, punctuated by the cold chiming of “sound sculptures,” the creak of great, revolving wind-sails.) The disinherited wolfen inspire sympathy and awe, conveying something authentically alien, finer and more enduring than all our human works.

The Company of Wolves (1984)
      The crème de la crème of werewolf movies, Company of Wolves is a Freudian/Jungian adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood” that draws us into sumptuous hallucination and waking dream. An adolescent on the verge of her first menarche plunges into a rite-of-passage fantasy set in a fairy tale forest teeming with potential guides: parents, priest, granny, even the Devil. Wherever Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) turns, this haunted world expresses humankind’s most primal impulses and wishes. Through storytelling and first-hand experience, awake and dreaming, the ripening girl learns lessons about good and evil, civilized coupling and wilder forms of lust. (Rosaleen’s mother, fresh from bedding dad, observes, “If there is a beast inside every man, he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman.") When, in the end, magnificent wolves literally explode through the walls, windows and paintings of Rosaleen’s “real”-world home, it’s visually and emotionally orgasmic.

Wolf (1994)
      What could be more civilized than a witty Mike Nichols movie about Manhattan book publishing? But Jack Nicholson, he of devilish grin and wolfish ways, is perfectly cast as Wolf’s lapdog turned lycanthrope. His rep for “taste and individuality” doesn’t keep Jack’s superannuated senior editor from getting fired in favor of a ruthless protégé (sociopathic James Spader) who’s also boffing his wife. But turns out “the last civilized man” has been bitten by a weird beast he ran down on a snowy road, and soon wrinkles recede, sense of smell turns incredibly acute, spectacles are superfluous and, best of all, our "wolf" is as randy as a young pup. Sly boots Nichols is working a satirical metaphor for survival in the dog-eat-dog world of Big Apple intellectual economics—aided by Nicholson’s sympathetic yet genuinely scary metamorphosis from “worm” into alpha male.

Dog Soldiers (2002)
      In this smart, fast-paced revamping of the werewolf genre, a platoon of soldiers on a training exercise in the gloomy Scottish highlands holes up in a cottage to fight off a pack of lycanthropes—ugly upright corruptions of a proper wolf. (The filmmakers wanted to avoid relying on CGI, so animatronics and body suits with stilts did the trick.) Two of their troop—that they know of—have already been bitten, so the enemy threatens from within and without. Tightlipped Kevin McKidd (star of HBO’s Rome and Grey's Anatomy) is suitably gutsy and tenacious, super-gluing his beloved Sarge’s innards back inside his body, fending off a knife that’s literally grating between his teeth, engineering escape strategies thwarted by the cunning werewolves—who could as easily be Nazis, Viet Cong, or Iraqi insurgents.

These dogs will hunt: Werewolf of London (1935), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981), Wilderness (1996), Ginger Snaps (2000), Wolf Girl/Blood Moon (2001)

 

Zombies

Why do we love zombies? Ambulatory corpses are rarely pleasant to look at, and it's devilishly difficult to project personality through all that putrefaction. Probably it's because he best horror fiction delights in disinterring the stuff we’ve buried down in the darkness behind the brain, exposing the scary shadowside of how we live, what we believe and feel. Going to the movies to get scared stiff by blood-suckers and flesh-eaters can be as cathartic as dreaming: if we face our baddest selves and worst fears, we can acknowledge their power and give them proper burial—so they don’t come out to play for real. Zombie movies tap into our primal fear of the dead, our dread that the deceased might get so hopping mad at being cut off from life and light, they could return to take revenge on the living.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
      This beautiful film fairly crawls with baroque shadows that infect anything that lives in the light. As the Byronic master of a West Indies sugar plantation bitterly declares, here beauty is just a mask death wears. Watching beautiful “ghosts”—a brunette in black and a long-haired blonde in white—drift through a dark tower and rustling fields of head-high cane, confronting a towering, emaciated zombie with faintly  phosphorescent eyes, witnessing a maddened lover put a brain-dead woman out of her misery, then carry her into a nocturnal, foam-flecked sea—who can resist the hypnotic spell of a movie that’s mostly waking fever dream?

Dead Alive / Braindead (1992)
      Peter Jackson often lards his horror with gross-out comedy, but still delivers the goods when it comes to images of archetypal dread. A momma’s boy beaten down and figuratively castrated by his horrific dam is forced into manhood when practically everyone in his hometown turns zombie after being bitten by a savage Sumatran rat-monkey. Savor taboo-flaunting scenes like Lionel in the park, battering an undead infant into submission as horrified dowagers look on. Lick your chops during the orgy of communal feasting—a gorefest that beggars belief—while our hero takes on a primally terrifying monster of motherhood.

I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain (1998)
      A low-budget zombie-flick of shocking originality, this one’s a companion piece to David Cronenberg’s brilliant remake of The Fly, another exploration of the tragedy of incurable, flesh-disfiguring disease through horror-movie metaphor. An ultra-ordinary fellow bitten by an injured woman he tries to aid is soon driven to consume human flesh. The day-by-day chronicle of his truly awful descent into physical decay and dissolution is punctuated by interviews with folks who knew him, even loved him, before he fell “sick.” Horrified, nauseated, we watch as he kneels over a corpse, eating bits of flesh from its face; masturbates while holding a snapshot of the woman he loved, until that part of him is gone as well; tries to nail the putrefying parts of his body back together. Not for the squeamish.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season Five: "The Body" and "Forever")
      Few TV or big screen fictions have dealt as ambitiously with the raw reality of physical death as did these two episodes. We share Buffy’s shock when Mother turns corpse, when warm, loving flesh becomes cold meat. Anya, a demon unschooled in human realities, nails down death’s killing absurdity: “But I don’t understand! I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore!” The hard fact of Mother’s altered state comes hideously home to her other daughter in the morgue, as Dawn crouches under the autopsy gurney on which the sheeted, autopsied body lies. It’s unsupportable, a primal outrage, that a life should come down to this—and Dawn turns to magic to raise her mother from the dead. Waiting with Dawn, we hear the slow, heavy tread of something outside the house, something we realize we don’t want to see, no matter how much we ache for reunion. A knock on the door, opened just as the spell’s lifted—and thankfully, the visitor is gone.

Land of the Dead (2005)
      George A. Romero’s at the top of his game in Land, typically lacing a wicked-scary zombiefest with acid commentary on contemporary life in these United States. What’s left of humanity has holed up in a consumer’s paradise, an island-fortress under permanent siege by the “stenches.” The movie looks more and more prescient in its portrayal of an America populated by folks bent on amusing themselves to death as though good times would never end—and we all know where that fiscal philosophy has landed us! Romero even takes apart the kind of mindless patriotism that casts other nations as bit-players in our drama of manifest destiny: in Land, the Fourth of July becomes a bloody Independence Day, as the disenfranchised, hungry dead overrun the citadel of high-living consumers. How’s that for a metaphor with teeth?

More life of the party: The White Zombie (1932), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), Zombie (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), Shaun of the Dead (2004), REC (2007)

 

Psychos and Slashers

Raw Meat / Death Line (1972)
      I first saw this super-creepy British flick at a drive-in, in a car full of weed-smokin’ folk looking to get off on another silly monster mash. By the time the camera snaked its way deep into the bowels of the London subway system to slither through a stomach-turning abattoir where some thing encouraged its pregnant mate to drink from a corpse, we'd fallen dead silent. Seems that back in 1892, an unfinished tunnel collapsed, cutting off a clutch of men and women laborers. Too expensive to dig them out, so the survivors were left to die—but somehow they didn't. And now one of the last descendants of the tribe has come up for food. Trust me, you will never be able to scrape his mush-mouthed moan "Mind the doors" out of your nightmares.

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
      The Canadian blandness of Black Christmas's characters and location—sorority girls (young Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin among them) bouncing around a fusty old mansion—ups the horror generated by this little classic. Sure, the sisters may have some problems—unwanted pregnancy, possessive boyfriend, unloving parents—but these are human-sized in light of persistent phone-calls from someone—or something—emitting bestial grunts, howls and slobbers. At the beginning, the camera sneaks into the sorority house like an unclean stalker or voyeur. By the shocker ending, as the film withdraws from what's become a slaughterhouse, the POV has devolved into something dead-eyed, inhuman—making your flesh crawl even as you exit this very bad place.   

Reeker (Dave Payne, 2005)
      A terrifically smart, self-reflexive addition to its genre: a group of stereotypical twentysomethings (spunky heroine, dim sexpot, amoral cut-up, good guy, et al.) get marooned at an abandoned motel in the middle of a desert and picked off—and apart, in variously inventive ways—one by one, each atrocity heralded by a godawful stink. The creepiest bloodbath, set in a dilapidated outhouse, taps into our primal fear of what might be down there in that dark hole over which we trustingly place our most vulnerable parts. A black-caped figure wielding a huge scythe, the reeking horror jump-cuts across the screen like a bat out of hell. But Reeker kicks things up a notch, literally forcing us to see how getting the bejeezus scared out of us is one way of laughing off death. Trouble is, the Grim Reaper himself is the star of this nasty little horrorshow.

Further side trips: Halloween (1978), Frailty (2001), May (2002); Hatchet (2006), Human Centipede (2010), Human Centipede 2 (2011), The Woman (2011)

 

Things

The Descent (2005)
      This Neil Marshall picture is proof positive that the best scarefests, the ones that sink their teeth deep into your soul, conjure monsters out of our very own lives and psyches, David Cronenberg–style. A tribe of women spelunkers, one of whom is half in the grave with her recently dead husband and child, gets trapped deep in a cave after a rockfall. As these Amazons crawl into ever more claustrophobic wormholes, their psychological faultlines begin to fracture. And then there begin to be glimpses of ... what? Maggots? Mutants? Whatever the horror is, it’s utterly alien, the color of corpses, as ravenous as death itself. The Descent is like being nailed up alive in a coffin with your worst nightmare.

Wendigo (2001)
      From a child’s point of view, the complexity of parental conflict, the awful mystery of death, everything that unsettles his world can look and feel like a horror movie. For Miles, sitting in the back seat of a Volvo, listening to his quarreling dad and mom lacerate each other, the sudden shock of a deer hitting the windshield seems like a natural externalization of the emotional violence assaulting him. It’s not long before this shell-shocked little boy dreams up an antlered demon—the Native American wendigo—that embodies everything that threatens him. Another low-budget gem from Habit's Larry Fessenden, this one gets way under your skin, imbuing ordinary rural landscapes and behavior with a heightened quality of hellish hallucination. Father and son joyously sledding down a hill, a pair of boots sitting in an empty hospital hallway—images that signal that your world can end anywhere, anytime.

Pulse (2001)
      Watching this atmospheric horror movie is like sinking into dark, warm waters where amorphous black forms embrace you while you drown. The plot’s relevant only insofar as it references a contemporary, particularly Asian, distrust of technology: something feeding on our Internet “circuits” inspires those who hope for connection to commit suicide. What little impact these isolated souls had on others is reflected in the chilling “footprint” of their passing: a human-sized smear on the wall, a Hiroshima shadow. This is a movie that can mine extreme terror out of the slight movement of a see-through plastic curtain—and the shot of a dark boneless “thing” undulating across the floor toward us arouses pure, unadulterated revulsion.

Other things: The Thing (Hawks, 1951), The Thing (Carpenter, 1982), They Came from Within (1975), The Brood (1979)

 

 

Ghosts

The brute fact of an uneuphemized corpse, its face frozen in that opaque, no-longer-quite-human expression, always evokes a kind of atavistic horror. We want to put distance between us and that cold flesh. We want it in the ground ... now, without a moment's delay. And when the dead won't stay down in the ground? Well, then you've got yourself a ghost story—and, in the right hands, a good haunting can not only scare the bejeezus out of you, but also resonate with something more than the heebie-jeebies. Think of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and the awful smearing of boundaries between the quick and the dead, the metaphysical horror of the undead acting out murder and decadence and banality over and over, for all eternity.

Carnival of Souls (1962)
      This no-budget ghost story out of Kansas is a classic, never failing to raise the short hairs. From the moment the film’s bland, blond protagonist lurches out of a river covered in mud, reality begins to decay. Like the original Night of the Living Dead, Carnival mines terror out of the mundane, so that its every black-and-white image glows with a kind of eerie, toxic phosphorescence. Even the retro quality of early-Sixties period behavior and locations—drag racing on backroads, everyday life in a Heartland town, the abandoned carnival pavilion out on the salt flats—contributes to the dreamlike, dissociated state into which Carnival’s lost soul—and we—slowly and inexorably sink.

Beloved (1998)
      The specter that haunts this adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel is the long, dark shadow of slavery’s history in America. But it takes flesh-and-flood form when an infantile, almost bestial, creature crawls out of swamp muck, covered with buzzing flies. This broken thing, stuttering, grunting, slobbering, insinuates itself into a post–Civil War black family and begins to suck the life out of them. Thandie Newton deserved an Oscar for her superb performance as Beloved, the sexually omnivorous “vampire” whose delicate beauty masks grossest appetite.

The Orphanage (2007)
      From the moment a wife and mother returns to the creepy orphanage where she grew up, she’s haunted by memories from the past—as well as present weirdness. Out in the dark, a swing creaks as though a child has just jumped off; her own son, in fragile health, has made friends with a boy who shouldn’t exist; and then there are those worrisome bones out in the lime kiln. For awhile The Orphanage plays like a superior haunted-house flick, but it soon ratchets up its emotional charge, becoming a celebration of maternal love so powerful it gifts a woman with the courage and will to breach the gates of death. Think of a grown-up, much darker take on Wendy, Peter Pan and the lost boys 

Other haunts: The Uninvited (1944), The Frighteners (1996), Soft for Digging (2001), The Dark (2005)