FilmNerds Recommends: Halloween 2011

It’s that time of year again, Halloween. More than most other holidays, Halloween is a movie-lover’s dream, or nightmare if you’re Cinematrimony co-host Francesca Scalici. Some of the other FilmNerds decided to bring you some last minute recommendations for your Halloween night movie marathon and while you’ll probably need to beg, borrow and steal to find them at this point, for future viewing purposes we’ve included Netflix links (just click the images). Enjoy!

Classic Horror (pre-1980)

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The first time I saw Tobe Hooper’s road movie bloodbath was in the far too intimate confines of the Ferguson Center theater at the University of Alabama. My brother Graham was running the movie series that fall and had dressed the theater lobby up with cobwebs, fake blood and other Halloween decorations, making for a terrific environment for the eager packed house there for a late night screening of the cult classic. Turns out, the intimate setting wasn’t so much as fun as it was horribly upsetting, yet deeply effective for this particular film. Following several of the genre rules it helped write, the film thrusts today’s seasoned viewer into what might seem like cliched moments, but it all feels perfectly new and disturbing, especially the “family dinner,” where I just wanted to leave. By the end, the screaming vixen might have escaped Leatherface’s wrath, but we sure haven”t.

Craig Hamilton’s Pick – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I grew up on Horror.  So by the time I got to college, I thought nothing could faze me.  Then I caught The Texas Chainsaw Massacre around Halloween of my freshman year at Alabama (2001) at the Ferguson theatre (I could venture a guess at who was running the show at that time) and was completely floored at what I was watching.  The tension building up during the opening minutes that lead up to the inevitable chaos had my heart beating out of my chest.  And, of course, that shockingly brutal and graceless first kill.  It’s perhaps one of the best ever.  I’ll never forget that steel door bursting open and slamming shut following that unforgiving hammer blow to the head and the dragging of the convulsing victim’s body into the hidden labyrinth of that hideous house.  That feeling of horror was back inside me and in full force.  My jaw was on the floor.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Alien (1979)

I’ve been derided by my fellow nerds for calling this arguably my favorite horror film of all time but I stand by the pick. Firstly, it’s undeniably a monster movie in its most basic form. Our heroes creep around dark hallways trying and failing to avoid being eaten by a terrible beast. Simple enough. But there are deeper things going on here that explore societal horrors, things like corporate greed gone horribly awry, the paranoia created by ever-advancing technology. I believe Alien still holds up today when it comes to terrifying effects, even when you include the shockingly highly-lit birth scene. Not many horror movies can still effectively turn stomaches 30 years later.

Graham Flanagan Pick – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Polanski’s classic smash-hit about a woman who unwittingly becomes impregnated with the Son of Satan still exists as one of the creepiest, if not scariest, movies ever made. Polanski takes an absurd, almost laughable premise and stages it within a totally realistic environment. This is what makes the film work: the idea that something so frightening could happen in someone’s comfort zone.

 

Contemporary Horror (last five years)

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – Let the Right One In (2008) – Available via Netflix Instant

If you can’t already tell from one of his three stellar trailers for “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” few directors have a better grasp on tone than Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish auteur behind this beautifully haunting tale of youngish love and survival from 2008. Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s depicts a greater scope than the flat and quiet landscape might typically suggest. Alfredson never shoves any of the violent or scary moments in your face, often hiding them and earning every last second. The wintry, desolate atmosphere creates a thoughtful sense of dread and unpredictability, all rocking at a deliberate and steady pace few contemporary horror films have the discipline to match.

Craig Hamilton’s Pick – The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

I can appreciate a good scare, but when the film is particularly well made, then that’s quite an achievement.  The Orphanage is a beautifully made Spanish film set in an old orphanage where Laura, a woman who grew up there takes her family back to live.  The film has some extremely creepy scenes, including one great scene involving the Spanish version of Red Light, Green Light.  It’s a scene where you know what is going to happen, but the anticipation is where the fun’s at.

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Matt Scalici’s Pick – Paranormal Activity (2007) – Available via Netflix Instant

It’s been a rough decade for horror but in light of the recent (and hugely successful) release of the third installment in this franchise, I’d like to fully endorse the original film to any of you who haven’t seen it yet. Is it deeply and powerfully disturbing in a way that touches on something important in the human psyche? No. Will it make you curl into a ball of suspense in your chair and then jump and scream even though you knew something was coming? Yes, and really is there any more we should ask of a cheap horror film? This is the perfect Halloween night popcorn movie as are both of its sequels.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Catfish (2010)

Last year’s underrated indie “thriller” delivered some of the most brilliant movie marketing we’ve seen in years. Its ambiguous trailers portrayed the film as a Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity-esque ‘found-footage’ horror film. Those brave enough to see Catfish found out that the directors had indeed made a horror film: the first one about Facebook, that is.

 

Most Disgusting

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – The Fly (1986) – Available via Netflix Instant

David Cronenberg’s twisted sci-fi/horror black comedy mixes some Frankenstein with Dr. Jekyll while throwing in some seriously silly gore that still kinda grosses me out. If you’re a fan of bones not snapping on screen, you might avoid it. I remember many years ago when I saw “The Fly” on TV at about 6-years-old and nearly throwing up in my mouth during the climactic showdown between Geena Davis’ editor and Brundlefly, who pukes up this disgusting acid stuff that melts flesh and bone. Ick. For Cronenberg and gore purists, it’s a must, but for your average film fan, it’s a doozy. Jeff Goldblum’s delightfully wiry performance should win most people over.

Craig Hamilton’s Pick – The Last House on the Left (1972) – Available via Netflix Instant

Thanks to Joe Bob Briggs and his recommendations made on the weekly TNT variety show, MonsterVision, my little sister and I decided to rent the film when we were younger and it didn’t take long before we were scarred for life.  It’s not really a horror film.  It’s an exploitative and unnecessarily violent film; one made with hardly a budget and those are the scariest kind.  A girl is kidnapped, raped and murdered by a gang of convicts who end up staying at the house of the parents of the very girl they had just killed.  The Last House on the Left crescendos into a spraying of vengeful and horrific acts of violence by the victim’s parents once they realize who their visitors are.  This being a recommends piece, I suppose that I’m technically recommending it, but it’s not for everyone.  In fact, it’s hardly for anyone.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Day of the Dead (1985)

As a whole, this movie is pretty talky and philosophical but I wanted to mention it here because it has perhaps the most disgusting and well-executed practical effects I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Late in the film, one of the key characters, who frankly has had it coming, gets rather horrifically drawn and quartered by a group of hungry zombies. We watch as his guts and appendages are torn off as he screams (simple enough, right?) but what’s truly shocking is when we see his still-screaming head ripped from the body. It’s a combination of great sound effects mixed with truly remarkable prosthetics and puppetry but while you’re watching it, all you can think is “they just ripped that dude’s head off!”

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Evil Dead 2 (1987)

As if this film’s praises haven’t been sung enough since its cult-fueled video renaissance, I feel like I have something somewhat unique to add. I fear this movie’s title and its cover art might dissuade certain audiences (namely women) from giving it a fair chance, which would be a serious shame, since – despite numerous instances of absolutely revolting blood and guts – Sam Raimi’s low-budget masterpiece serves as one of the funniest (with emphasis on the word ‘fun’) entries in the history of the horror genre.

 

Worth Another Look

Ben Flanagan’s Pick – The Prestige (2006)

You might not find Christopher Nolan’s dueling magician opus in the horror section of Netflix, but fewer films in recent memory give me the creeps than when Andy Serkis shows Hugh Jackman where Tesla gets his power in an infinite field of giant light bulbs. Honestly, whenever Borden (Christian Bale) or Angiers (Jackman) reads the other’s journal, and the narration begins to address the reader, I catch myself looking over MY own shoulder. Nolan toys with an audience as well as anyone working today, perhaps no better than in “The Prestige,” a sophisticated sleight-of-hand that has you guessing at the onset when the opening shot fades in and Bale asks, “Are you watching closely?” The disjointed timeline, off-kilter handheld camerawork and eerie soundtrack make for as pleasant an unsettling feeling as you could possibly imagine.

Craig Hamilton’s Pick – The Shining (1980)

Having just finished the book I think it’s appropriate to recommend the film for another look.  Aside from the fact that it’s Kubrick and Nicholson, you should watch it because it has some of the most frightening images and scary scenes ever made.  The Shining is just a brilliant work of horror from a director who specialized in making unforgettable images.  A family occupies a closed down hotel during the winter season and the snow completely cuts them off from anyone for the entire winter.  With Kubrick, you get minimalism and it’s apparent in The Shining.  Not only the images, but the story too is minimal.  Nearly every shot is creepy and nearly every shot is slow.  It creeps along at a stalking pace, but the speed and tension both pick up to an incredible ending.

Matt Scalici’s Pick – Scream (1996) – Available via Netflix Instant

I admit I’m a little behind the curve when it comes to this franchise, which recently released a fourth installment earlier this year. I didn’t watch the Scream films growing up, as I had parents that cared for my mental well-being and kept me away from slasher films at a young age, except of course when they came on USA Network in a heavily-edited format. I marathoner the Scream movies recently with some friends and while I certainly think it must have had a stronger impact in 1996, when being “meta” was still a fresh idea, I still think the original holds up really well today. The plot is so aware of the audience watching and assumes they are as smart as the filmmakers when it comes to familiarity with conventions of the horror genre. That assumption gives even us jaded film nerds a chance to experience something that horror films rarely give us: genuinely surprising and clever plot twists.

Graham Flanagan’s Pick – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

One of the most underrated movies of the 90s (and perhaps the most underrated movie in Francis Ford Coppola’s vast filmography) Bram Stoker’s Dracula definitely deserves another look… both for its amazing technical merits and its all-star cast, led by… Keanu Reeves!