Monday, October 3, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 8: The 1990s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

120. The Witches (1990- dir. Nicholas Roeg)

While the mass of horror films are aimed at adults, the perfect audiences for supernatural scare films are kids. Even those old enough to understand that vampires and werewolves don’t actually exist are still more susceptible to being sucked into such stories than older, more cynical people. Proving brave enough to endure such stuff makes kids feel more mature, which is why sitting through stuff like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th are such rites of passage. For those too young to watch naked teens get eviscerated by masked lunatics, there are several films specifically designed for kids that don’t patronize them by skimping on the scares. A lot of youngsters get their first taste of horror from pictures such as The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Some twenty years since its release, Nicholas Roeg’s The Witches still hasn’t developed the classic status of those films despite winning several awards and the overwhelming praise of critics upon its release. Perhaps this is because the film is just too damn scary, even though Roald Dahl criticized it for softening the ending of his book. Young people might find little to label “soft” in this movie. On holiday at a seaside hotel, orphaned Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) encounter a convention of witches plotting a holocaust against the children of England. Masquerading as “The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” the witches’ true faces are hideous, and Roeg captures them in nightmarish close-ups through distorted lenses. Most terrifying of all is Angelica Houston as the Grand High Witch, who transforms Luke into a mouse realized through the puppetry of Jim Henson (this was the great magician’s final film). Although his work in The Witches remains extremely bold and creative, Roeg keeps his avant garde tendencies at bay, so the film never gets too outré for its young viewers. Whether or not those viewers are daring enough to handle its frightening themes and images is another matter.

121. Misery (1990- dir. Rob Reiner)

Across the pond, horror was going through the changes that would severely affect its prominence in the new decade. In 1987, Adrian Lyne’s story of a married man who has an affair with an obsessive psychopath became the second biggest moneymaker of the year (just behind Three Men and a Baby), a critical favorite, and a multiple Academy Award nominee. The sensation Fatal Attraction stirred bled into the ‘90s when the dominant horror subgenre became “the crazy” movies: the crazy tenant (Pacific Heights), the crazy nanny (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), the crazy teen admirer (The Crush), the crazy roommate (Single White Female), the crazy temp (The Temp), and so on and so on and so on. For the most part, these films were predictable, usually sexist, and, well, bad. The one major exception is Misery. Stephen King’s novel from the year Fatal Attraction debuted was ripe for adaptation in “the crazy” ‘90s. Crazy fan Annie Wilkes nurses the object of her crazy obsession, novelist Paul Sheldon, back to health after a car accident. Of course, she has no intention of allowing him to leave her home once he’s well enough. When Annie realizes Paul has killed off her favorite character in his latest book, she takes horrific measures to force him into revising its conclusion. On the page, Misery is depressing. Annie’s torture of Paul grows grinding quickly, and King’s strokes of humor don’t register well. Under the control of fine comedic director Rob Reiner, Misery becomes considerably less miserable. Although the film falls back on the tired arch of a “crazy bitch” fixating on a man, whom we’re supposed to cheer on when he finally beats her into submission, Annie is not the cardboard cutout most characters of her sort are. Funny, scary, and creative, Annie is nicely developed, and Kathy Bates is a lot of fun in the role. Other films of its ilk tend to lean hard on the dicey connections between sex and violence; the message so many crazy films impart: women may be able to control men sexually, but when it comes to cases, men still have the physical strength to beat them to death. Misery de-emphasizes eroticism (Annie does have a crush on Paul, but it isn’t too central to the plot) to focus on a power play that could have played out between two heterosexual men or women. As Paul, James Caan plays off Bates very well, his palpable misery lending gravity to the picture even when his co-star is at her silliest. Misery hits all the usual beats of “the crazy” movies, including the standard “Oh, good she’s finally dead… Ahhh! She’s not dead!” climax, but its lively direction and great performances elevate the movie well above its subgenre-mates.

122. The Silence of the Lambs (1991- dir. Jonathan Demme)

And then came the next major blow for supernatural horror in the ‘90s. The Silence of the Lambs committed what may be the ultimate crime against the genre: it made horror respectable. The Silence of the Lambs received an unprecedented level of accolades for a horror film, becoming only the third film to ever “sweep” the Academy Awards. So monster movies were out and monstrous human killer movies were in. As another possible consequence, a sort of self-conscious seriousness drained the fun from many of the decade’s thrillers (Seven is one egregious example of this). That’s a shame, because there’s actually a fair amount of fun in The Silence of the Lambs. The exchanges between Jodie Foster’s callow FBI rookie Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’s diamond-sharp psychopath Hannibal Lecter are often humorous and even warm. Though Jonathan Demme employs high-caliber actors and artful cinematography, the film’s content is hardly what one would expect from a multiple-Oscar-winner: a cannibalistic super-villain who disembowels and crucifies one of his victims, a serial killer who skins his victims alive and dances naked with his cock tucked between his legs, an FBI agent who receives a graphic face-full of jizz from a masturbating prisoner. And though film critics loved the movie, it received a fair share of criticism on political grounds. Demme was derided as homophobic—even though Lecter explicitly states that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) only thinks he’s transsexual— and misogynistic—even though we only see the non-eroticized aftermath of violence against women. The film’s two lead female characters are a tough, resourceful potential victim who survivors her ordeal (Brooke Smith) and an FBI agent who overcomes her justifiable fears to bring the killer down. Tellingly, even some of the critics reserved praise for the film (feminist activist Betty Friedan, who told Playboy magazine “it was absolutely outrageous that The Silence of the Lambs won four Oscars,” admitted the film “was an artistic triumph”). Regardless of how one interprets its politics or effect on horror films in the ‘90s, there is no denying the disturbing power and style of Silence of the Lambs or the monumental work of its lead actors.

123. Braindead (1992- dir. Peter Jackson)

Audiences who know the director from mainstream stuff such as the Lord of the Rings movies and his King Kong remake might be literally shocked by Peter Jackson’s early films. Beginning with the low budget splatter sci-fi of Bad Taste and the genuinely tasteless Muppets parody Meet the Feebles, Jackson seemed to be overreaching for the title of New Zealand’s most transgressive filmmaker. His puke-inducing sensibility and innate gift for zany camerawork coalesced in his third feature. Braindead has often been called the goriest movie ever made. You know you’re in for it when an opening credit is reserved for “gore effects,” although the film’s adorableness balances the non-stop and beyond-graphic gross outs. Our hero is Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), whose smothering mother succumbs to the toxic bite of a rare Sumatran Rat-Monkey (brought to life with neat-o Ray Harryhausen-style stop motion). As mom turns into a decomposing, brain-eating zombie, Lionel struggles to keep her condition hidden from friends, family, and his new flame, Paquita (Diana Peñalver). This proves a trying task when Lionel’s mom starts falling apart into her tapioca pudding and house guests consume the tidbits. Naturally (or, more accurately, unnaturally) the zombie plague spreads, and pretty soon Lionel is playing nursemaid to a household of bodily fluid-spurting zombies. It’s all unrepentantly repellant, but that’s half the fun. Jackson can charm even the most old-fashioned monster movie fan with his blissful geekiness. The references flow nearly as freely as the pus, with nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Evil Dead 2, Night of the Living Dead, E.C. Comics, Famous Monsters of Filmland (which we see in the hands of the magazine’s creator, Forest Ackerman), and of course, King Kong. There’s also a kung-fu priest who “kicks ass for God,” a runaway zombie baby, and a mower used for purposes Lawn Boy never intended. Within a couple of years, Peter Jackson had figured out how to work his magic in more acceptable ways with his masterpiece Heavenly Creatures, but Braindead is the peak of his period as one of the most unacceptable filmmakers in the world.

124. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992- dir. David Lynch)

David Lynch’s film that most adheres to horror conventions is the big-screen prequel to his wholly unconventional small-screen series “Twin Peaks”. When ABC dropped “Twin Peaks” after its second season, the story seemed deader than the fish in Pete Martell’s percolator. Lynch, however, was not finished with the dreamily alluring world he and Mark Frost created. After he revealed his plans to return to that creepy community in the Pacific Northwest, fans passionately anticipated the film, believing all of the unfinished business from the season-two finale would finally find resolution. When a number of the series’ central actors (most notably Kyle “Special Agent Dale Cooper” MacLachlan) either refused to appear in the film or only agreed to a limited schedule, Lynch was forced to rethink it. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me ended up as a prequel, essentially retracing plot points discussed, but not depicted, in the TV series. The film was a cataclysmic bomb. Critics found it baffling and pretentious. Vincent Canby of the New York Times famously wrote, “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” Many fans felt let down by its failure to resolve the fates of Agent Cooper, Audrey and Ben Horne, Pete Martell, and the rest. Those who’d loved “Twin Peaks” but hadn’t sampled Lynch’s features were turned off by the excessive level of violence, sex, and bizarreness. A screening at the Cannes Film Festival elicited rabid booing. Time has been most kind to Fire Walk With Me, though, and Lynch’s more open-minded followers rate it as one of his most beautifully executed and frightening films. Sheryl Lee, who was finally allowed to embody Laura Palmer outside of the series’ brief flashbacks, turns in an astoundingly complex performance, at once womanly and girlish, out of control and commanding, cold-hearted and deeply sympathetic. The anti-Twin Peaks opening sequence in Deer Meadow is a nifty parody of the series and an early clue that it would not be following in those tamer TV footsteps. Most relevant to this list, the film delivers a succession of subtle chills and heart-halting shocks that place it among the scariest of its decade. Killer BOB (Frank Silva) is back to terrorize Laura in disturbing sequences that revisit the series’ themes of child abuse without the compromises network TV requires. Many viewers found these scenes too much to bear, but Lee has said she met a number of incest survivors impressed by how fearlessly and authentically the film dealt with that subject. It also bears striking similarities to that greatest of horror movies: Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both feature monstrous beings serially terrorizing young women who allow themselves to be killed when they realize the men who should be protecting them are the very ones committing the abuse. And like the greatest of David Lynch’s films, Fire Walk with Me is whimsically, yet masterfully, crafted. Ron Garcia’s softly lit autumnal cinematography is exquisite. Angelo Badalamenti’s jazzy score may be the best in horror history. Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, Miguel Ferrer, and Lynch, himself, all turn in great comedic performances as FBI agents. Fire Walk with Me also ends the harrowing “Twin Peaks” experience on a much-needed note of hope as Laura and Agent Cooper achieve the transcendence they were so cruelly denied in the series.

125. Candyman (1992- dir. Bernard Rose)

Candyman reflects America’s downbeat mood in the waning days of the Reagan/Bush era. Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden” concerns urban legends and urban collapse. Candyman was the son of a slave who managed to overcome his tragic past to become a respected artist. His romance with a white woman ignites the outrage of local racists, who hunt him, sever his hand, replace it with a hook, douse him in honey (hence his nickname), and expose him to the thousands of venomous bee stings that end his life. A century later, the residents of the Cabrini-Green housing project in Illinois are reporting Candyman sightings. Graduate-student Helen Lyle conducts an investigation for her master’s thesis on urban legends. This sets the podium for a look at issues of racial violence so relevant following the Rodney King incident and the urban poverty crisis exacerbated by Bush’s recession of the early ‘90s. In Candyman, the threat of real-life violence is more distressing than supernatural monsters. Note the young boy who actually seems disappointed to hear the Candyman phantom doesn’t exist and a hook-wielding gang leader committed the Cabrini-Green murders. Viewers will not feel similar disappointment, as writer/director Bernard Rose keeps the nature of his killer ambiguous. Has Candyman really returned from the dead to wreak vengeful havoc? Has he possessed the reincarnation of the woman he loved to commit his deeds? Or is our heroine a madwoman twisted by her obsession with the legend? At the tail of a long period of tired slasher films, Candyman is a bracing spin on the genre because of its politics, Rose’s elegant sense of style, and the first-rate performances of and chemistry between Virginia Madsen as Helen and Tony Todd as the Candyman. Handsome Todd imbues the character with the Gothic allure of Dracula. The film’s time-spanning romance recalls that of The Mummy. Candyman further subverts slasher conventions with its urban setting and scares largely set in daylight. On the downside, Philip Glass’s score is overwrought and dated, and the excessive gore and last-minute shock are unnecessary concessions to contemporary horror requisites. Still, this is a smart melding of old-fashioned and modern horror. For those who believe horror movies are most prevalent during hard times (a pervasive theory that may be refuted by the lack of them during World War II), Candyman may also be significant as one of the decade’s last real hurrahs for horror. Just a couple of weeks after the film’s release, Americans voted Bush out and Bill Clinton in. Relatively young and charming, Clinton’s rise indicated a new start for America. Not a perfect president by any means, Clinton did oversee an era in which the country recovered from recession to enjoy a period of prosperity. The highest-profile controversies of his presidency were the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals that hardly impacted the American people directly. But as the theory goes, good times for America mean bad times for American horror films. Throughout the next several years, only a few American horror films made much impact (David Fincher’s grungy, gimmicky Seven; Wes Craven’s self-consciously clever Scream; M. Night Shyamalan’s whisper-fest The Sixth Sense). Direct-to-video cheapies and grade-z sequels were still plentiful, but the remainder of the ‘90s would be the most barren time for quality horror since the ‘40s.

126. Lost Highway (1997- dir. David Lynch)

At the same time American horror was losing altitude, David Lynch’s career was too. Regarded as a golden boy during the five-year period that saw him release the masterful Blue Velvet, win the Palme d’Or for Wild at Heart, and revolutionize television with “Twin Peaks”, Lynch fell hard after a stretch of poorly received projects that included Fire Walk with Me and the short-running TV series “Hotel Room” and “On the Air”. Several years lagged before he regained his excitement for filmmaking. Inspired by the recent O.J. Simpson trial, in which the accused murderer was acquitted to carry on with an apparent absence of remorse, Lynch reunited with Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford to write Lost Highway. Lynch’s first— and, to date, only— movie to be explicitly marketed as horror (“A 21st century noir horror film,” the copy read), Lost Highway monitors jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who suspects his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) of infidelity. After experiencing a blackout in which he hacks her to pieces, Fred ends up on death row. Terrified of the inevitable and horrified by the crime he can’t even remember, Fred takes a mental escape route in which he “becomes” the younger, better looking, freer mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). This being a David Lynch film, the real and the psychological exist on the same plane, and Fred’s transformation is presented as an actual occurrence possibly initiated by a demonic, string-pulling “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake). Lost Highway was an unusual film for Lynch at the time, trading in his trademark bucolic setting for seedy, smoggy Los Angeles and eschewing the timelessness of his recent films for a style reeking of the late ‘90s, from its gothic music-video sensibility to its Trent Reznor helmed soundtrack to its completely distracting cameo by (yeesh) Marilyn Manson. The film also suffers from cold characters and a sleazy aftertaste his other sex-and-violence soaked films avoided because of their more empathetic characters. Nevertheless, a lesser David Lynch movie is still a David Lynch movie, which means there is still much greatness to witness in Lost Highway. The director builds the picture on one of his spookiest ideas: Fred and Renee’s discovery of a succession of videotapes filmed outside and inside their home without their knowledge. The Mystery Man is another terrifying villain in the Killer BOB mode. Most importantly, Lost Highway established the theme of psychological transformation that Lynch would perfect in his best film since Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr., and explode in his most experimental one since that debut, INLAND EMPIRE.  

127. The Blair Witch Project (1999- dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez)

American horror received an unlikely defibrillation in the final days of the 1990s when Clinton’s scandal shaken presidency started to sour and millennial fears were on many people’s minds. Shyamalan’s conventional twister The Sixth Sense may have received the critical applause and the Oscar attention, but The Blair Witch Project is the film that really proved the genre could still be innovative and intensely scary. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick more planned The Blair Witch Project than directed it, employing the still-new Internet to build anticipation for their movie and the most primitive equipment and technical skills to film it. The ostensible filmmakers set amateur actors Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams loose in the woods of Burkittsville (formerly Blair), Maryland, for eight days with a camera and sound equipment. The actors were responsible for filming their own scenes and ad-libbing their dialogue. Each day, Sanchez and Myrick left them notes indicating plot developments. All of this cost somewhere in the neighborhood of five grand but raked in an astounding $248,639,099 at the box office, partly due to the brilliant ad campaign suggesting the events in the movie were real. Those events are spare indeed. Donohue, Leonard, and Williams get lost in the woods while making a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. A year after they go missing, their footage is found. In this footage, the kids argue, hear spectral crackling in the woods, argue, find stick figures hanging from trees and a packet of bloody teeth, argue, run out of cigarettes, argue, cry, argue, and come upon a derelict house. That’s about it, but The Blair Witch Project casts a powerful spell through verisimilitude and an easily relatable premise. While few know what it’s like to be stalked by a fire-breathing lizard man, most know what it’s like to be lost. The film captures the panic many of us have felt when wondering how and if we’ll ever find our way home. Although there are a few moments that imply the supernatural—such as a terrifying sequence in which the kids’ tent is assaulted by the pounding of little phantom hands—The Blair Witch Project is effective because it gives viewers a wide, blank canvas to paint with their own fears. If you find the concept of being stalked by a human killer to be most frightening, the film works on that level. If you’re given to more fantastical fears, it works as a monster movie too. Like Val Lewton, Sanchez and Myrick know that whatever one conjures in her or his imagination is infinitely more frightening than any close-up of a scaly beasty. Because the film is so short on overtly horrific images, a good deal of viewers found it to be the worst kind of hoodwink. Those with more active imaginations may rate it among the scariest movies ever made.

128. Audition (1999- dir. Takashi Miike)

As American horror was slowly beginning to emerge from its extended stupor, Japanese horror was beginning to pick up the slack in the same way British horror did in the late ‘50s. In 1998, Hideo Nakata’s Ring reinvigorated international interest in Asian spook stories with its bizarre tale of a killer ghost brought into existence by a sort of haunted VHS tape. The insanely prolific and just plain insane Takashi Miike didn’t quite share Nakata’s yen for the supernatural, but he recognized that the shocking sensibility he brought to his own crime films would adapt to horror nicely. Not that any viewer would recognize Ōdishon (Audition) as a horror film until its final quarter. For some 90 minutes, the picture plays as a melancholy romantic comedy with an undercurrent of sexual politics. Although lonely, widowed TV producer Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) says he does not believe in arranged marriages, he buys into his friend’s sexist scheme to hold auditions to find an “obedient” mate. Aoyama thinks he’s found the perfect, submissive wife when he interviews shy Asami (Eihi Shinna), remarking, “She’s fallen into our trap.” How wrong he is. As they court, Aoyama lies to Asami about his past; Asami lies to Aoyama about her past. When the truths start to surface, the film takes a radical turn to the hallucinatory and disturbing. As it was in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the violence seems more graphic than it really is in Audition because Miike’s framing is so intimate and his editing so jolting. Asumi’s purred refrain of “Kiri, kiri, kiri” (“Deeper, deeper, deeper”) functions as a relentless aural assault strangely similar to Chainsaw’s non-stop buzzing. The line is also a wicked parody of sex talk, and many viewers are so taken by the intensity of Audition that they often miss its humor and the way it skewers sexist romantic comedy clichés and Japan’s patriarchal culture. Impish Miike insists he intended no political perspective in Audition, though it has been both embraced and attacked by feminist critics. Viewers tend to agree on one point: Audition is one of the most unbearable horror experiences they’ve ever endured. The film was certainly potent enough to challenge a new crop of “torture porn” filmmakers to beat it at its own game, but the best horror movies of the ‘00s would not be not as easy to categorize.

Creep on to the 2000s…

Flee back to the ‘80s...
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