Wednesday, August 8, 2012

10 Non-Horror Movies That Think They're Horror Movies

We expect monsters and suspense and shocks and disturbing images when we watch horror movies. They’re all part of the gravestone-littered territory. But what happens when such elements creep into dramas and crime pictures and kiddie-flicks and musicals and sci-fi spectaculars and pseudo documentaries? They may get under our skin even more assuredly because they don’t belong; they’re wrong, and horror has always drawn much of its power from showing us very wrong things. Thus some of the scariest movies are not horror movies at all, but movies that apparently think they’re horror movies. Here are ten of the most horrifying.
1. The Curse of the Cat People (1944 – dir. Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch)

We begin with an exception to the rules delineated above. Val Lewton may be horror’s most renowned producer, yet most of his films could just as easily have found a place on this list because he so emphatically avoided commitment to the supernatural. RKO pictures handed Lewton goofy titles like I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Cat People, expecting him to make cheapo monster flicks to turn a quick profit. He in turn paid as little lip service to standard horror as possible, mining these pictures for unsettling psychological insight and allowing his stock company of directors— Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise— to realize them with artful light and shadow. RKO wasn’t getting exactly what it asked for, but it was getting hit films. Cat People was one of the biggest, so a sequel was a natural demand. Not only did Lewton barely bother to tie The Curse of the Cat People to its predecessor, but he made almost no effort to imbue it with anything recognizably horrifying. There is a ghost—former cat person Irena (Simone Simon)—but she is probably just a figment of little Amy’s (Ann Carter) imagination, and she is hardly an entity of horror. Rather, the once murderous monster has been totally rewritten as a benevolent presence, a beautiful and gentle playmate for a lonely girl whose parents (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph from the previous picture) don’t like her wasting her young years daydreaming. The Curse of the Cat People is a truly lovely piece of work—beautifully filmed and bittersweet—that was Lewton’s first to really give horror the heave ho. However, RKO was still able to market it as such because of its lurid title, its ghost, and a single scary sequence in which a local Miss Havisham (Julia Dean) tells Amy a story about the headless horseman that pitches the girl’s overactive imagination into hyperactive mode. There’s also a slight danger that the old lady’s daughter (Elizabeth Russell) is going to wring the kid’s neck in a fit of daughterly jealousy, but come on, that obviously isn’t going to happen in such a sweet film that really only thinks it’s horror.

2. Sunset Boulevard (1950 – dir. Billy Wilder)

When horror fell out of favor in the ‘50s, it immediately began assimilating into other genres. This is clearest in the decade’s sci-fi pictures that exuded fear more readily than the celestial and technological wonder at the heart of the genre. Horror also worked its way into noirs such as Kiss Me Deadly, with its apocalyptic finale, and The Night of the Hunter, a true genre straddler with a villain who is equal parts swindler archetype and boogeyman. In his 1950 noir Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder absorbed horror in subtler ways. Dimming star Norma Desmond (silent film legend Gloria Swanson) skulks through a Gothic old dark house replete with rat-infested swimming pool, Chas Addams-style dead chimp, and wheezy pipe organ on which the grim butler (one-time silent filmmaker and later-day horror character actor Erich von Stroheim) plays the classic horror signifier “Toccata and Fugue”. Norma, herself, is both beautiful and eerily possessed; a dead ringer for Gloria Holden’s Dracula’s Daughter. In his book American Gothic, Jonathan Rigby draws numerous fascinating parallels between Norma and Dracula senior, and her thrall over Joe Gillis (William Holden) is easily comparable to that of the Count over Mina or Renfield, even if the reason is more economic than supernatural. Though Rigby’s treatment of Sunset Boulevard as true horror is a stretch, there is no question that its final image of Norma— now completely insane, floating toward the camera, her eyes ablaze with madness, her predatory, claw-like fingers reaching for the audience—is among cinema’s most terrifying.

3. Vertigo (1958 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Somehow, suspense often gets mistaken for horror. Perhaps that’s why the Master of Suspense’s films often screen around Halloween even though he only made two proper horror films (three if one makes an argument for Frenzy). Vertigo certainly is not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s horrors, though it can be read as a dry run for the more outré thrills he’d forge in Psycho and The Birds. Fear-addled Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart at his most manic) is made to believe that Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) has been possessed by the ghost of a woman named Carlotta Valdes. This proves a ruse, but it allows Hitchcock to indulge in the sort of California-Gothic sensibility Wilder invented in Sunset Boulevard and David Lynch would later embrace in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. Novak strikes a beautiful but wan figure as the faux Madeleine Elster, and it surely can’t be a coincidence that her name is so similar to that of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous horror creations. Scottie’s acrophobic episodes (his vertigo doesn’t seem as acute, but I guess Acrophobia isn’t a very catchy movie title) are made horrific with Hitchcock’s distorted camera effects. Scottie’s psychedelic nightmare is like something from one of Roger Corman’s Poe pictures. His obsession with Madeleine is demented and disturbing, particularly considering Stewart’s warm and fuzzy “every man” reputation (which still persists despite his performance in this film and his similarly wacko turns in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Novak’s character meets her end in chilling fashion, stumbling through a window after seeing a black, spectral figure drift toward her from the shadows of an old bell tower.

4. The War Game (1965 – dir. Peter Watkins)

As we get older, horror movies can lose their power to horrify because of the inherent absurdity of supernatural monsters. Yet fear persists. Natural disasters, wars, destruction, and our own imminent deaths supplant childhood’s fantastical fears. On August 6, 1945, the United States commenced the four-day bombing campaigns in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that left the cities in a state of awful devastation beyond any horror filmmaker’s worst nightmares. Those in the West could barely imagine exactly what those people suffered. On the twentieth anniversary of the bombings, the BBC scheduled a pseudo-documentary that would have given Brits their clearest idea of what it would be like to endure thermo-nuclear bombing. The War Game never aired as part of the “Wednesday Play” anthology, supposedly because it was too horrifying. One may reasonably surmise that the BBC had other reasons for passing on Peter Watkins ‘s harrowing, despairing 45 minutes. The War Game is horrific for its unflinching discussion and depiction of the physical toll of nuclear war—the charred bodies, the retinal burns and melting eyeballs, the people being tossed around like rags in 100-mile-an-hour winds—but its political implications may be even more disturbing. The War Game casts its cold gaze on the bureaucratic follies, economic injustices, military blunders, racism, ignorance, paranoia, and local revolutions that would render the situation beyond hope. In the streets, police execute victims categorized as lost causes. The military incinerates truckloads of bodies. The cops in charge of maintaining order rave and whimper with post-traumatic stress disorders. This Oscar-winning nightmare is one of cinema’s bleakest visions, something that leaves vampires, werewolves, and witches behind as the children’s playthings they are.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 – dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick infused horror vibes into many of his films. There’s Clare Quilty’s mysterious stalking of Humbert Humbert, the apocalyptic finale of Dr. Strangelove, Alex de Large’s utterly monstrous violence and the horrific treatments designed to cure him of his psychopathic ways, Private Pyle’s terrifying breakdown, and the creepy/jokey Gothic orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. The Shining, of course, is a full-blooded horror film that makes the most of Kubrick’s horrific tendencies. His non-horror that makes the greatest use of them is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film functions as classic science fiction, inviting viewers to gape at its sundry wonders of the distant past and looming future. It also seeks to terrify us as we watch humanity being batted down by the very technology we created. The monster is the computer HAL, a genuine progeny of the murderous Frankenstein Monster. Its single, unblinking red eye is the peeper of a great demon. However, it is not nearly as imposing as space, itself. As beautiful and awe-inspiring as Kubrick’s galaxy is, it is also deeply foreboding, a vast, monstrous nothingness that swallows the astronauts who venture into it. Kubrick’s choice of sounds contribute to the horror atmosphere immensely: the wailing voices of György Ligeti’s modernist compositions and the aliens’ grotesque whispers skitter under the skin like vampiric talons.

6. Performance (1970 – dir. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg)

Had the execs at Warner Bros. been able to travel into the future they may have gotten a clue that Mick Jagger’s debut film would not be A Hard Day’s Night redux. But co-directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg had yet to make their names as two of Britain’s most idiosyncratic and twisted filmmakers. Both would etch out nooks in the horror genre: Cammell with Demon Seed and White of the Eye, and Roeg with Don’t Look Now and The Witches (not to mention Eureka, a period drama that sucker punches its audience with shocking horror during the final act). Performance certainly is no genre film. It is quite unlike anything before or since it at all. James Fox is a gangster hiding out in the rat’s nest of a fading rock star. Naturally, Jagger is that rock star, though he is channeling soon-to-be-dead Brian Jones rather than allowing his own cocksure persona to froth forth. The tough-guy gangster is properly discombobulated when engulfed in real decadence. By the end of the film, he and the rock star have swapped personalities. Cammell and Roeg get into this claustrophobic, off-putting world by exploiting the former’s knack for grim seaminess and the latter’s for disorienting editing. With its queasy violence and churning soundtrack, Performance is a Rock & Roll movie steeped in horror’s cauldron. Legend has it that one studio exec’s wife puked during a screening; a reaction fit for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which bears a distinct aesthetic similarity to Performance. Warner Bros. was so repelled by Cammell and Roeg’s film that the studio allowed it to languish for two years while cutting it to pieces. Performance was finally dumped in theaters in 1970—the same year Jagger appeared in yet another unexpectedly horrific picture: Gimme Shelter. Cammell and Roeg’s film has since developed a formidable cult reputation among those able to stomach it.

7. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971 – dir. Mel Stuart)

As indicated above, Nicolas Roeg made two proper horror movies. Both centered on children, though Don’t Look Now certainly isn’t intended for children. The Witches is, though it is likely to traumatize them with its weird camera angles, grotesque creatures, and disturbing themes of kids in danger and adults as secret monsters. While Roeg can take credit for the strange look of the film, and the late Jim Henson for its terrifying witches, the themes all came straight out of the book on which the film is based. Like Roeg, Roald Dahl was an artist just as adept at unsettling adults as he was at disturbing the kiddies. One of his most gruesome tales for the young is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which a group of kids win a highly coveted prize that punishes most of them for their greed, gluttony, and sloth. Dahl has rarely approved of film adaptations of his work. He declared Roeg’s The Witches “utterly appalling” because it undercut the consequences of his book with a happier ending. Dahl had issues with Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory too, but they don’t seem to stem from any softening on the part of director Mel Stuart. In fact, the film is creepier than the book, because instead of ensuring us that the naughty little children have survived their fantastical reprimands, they simply disappear, left presumably dead. Stuart ups the horror with his monstrous interpretation of the Oompa-Loompas as dead-eyed, orange-faced nightmares; the sinister Slugworth, a sort of missing link between the Child Catcher of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Toht the Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark; and the infamous river boat sequence, in which Gene Wilder recites some increasingly frenzied doggerel over acid-dosed images that climax in the actual decapitation of an actual chicken. What the hell was he thinking? Even Charlie’s reward for his honesty is played for thrills as Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator blasts through the roof of his factory for an acrophobia-inducing flight.

8. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975 – Peter Weir)

Three college students set off into the wild for a day trip. They all disappear under mysterious, possibly supernatural, circumstances. The Blair Witch Project you assume? Fair enough, but this synopsis also describes Picnic at Hanging Rock. Like Blair Witch, Hanging Rock sparked much speculation regarding whether or not it was a true story. It wasn’t. Peter Weir’s film was based on nothing more factual that Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same name. The peculiarity of the girls’ disappearance is what makes the film frightening. An unseen force seems to call them away from their fellow picnicking school chums on Valentine’s Day. They are compelled to scale a craggy, rather phallic, mountain. Lizards skitter by. A flash of bright light. A piercing scream. Then they’re gone. The rest of the film tracks the disintegration of Appleyard College, which has its very own monster in the cruel headmistress and a tragic damsel in Sara, who bears the brunt of Mrs. Appleyard’s anger. We discover she has been manacled for insubordination during her gym class in the film’s most disturbing reveal. Appleyard ultimately drives the poor girl to suicide... or was it out-and-out murder? Sara’s fate is yet another question Picnic at Hanging Rock refuses to resolve. Though the film is a work of extreme stylized beauty— a sepia daguerreotype of enigmatic nature come to life— its hazy vagueness, hovering air of the uncanny, bizarre images, and multiple tragedies will chill viewers to the bone.

9. 3 Women (1977 - dir. Robert Altman)

Robert Altman’s filmography is massive and a mass of contradictions. His films are freewheeling yet instantly identifiable by their overlapping dialogue, sprawling casts, and sketchy scripts fleshed out with improvisation. The Altman film is a genre in itself, even as he has tackled such known categories as war pictures (MASH), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), biopics (Vincent & Theo), drawing room mysteries (Gosford Park), musicals, and children’s films (Popeye). The closest Altman came to proper horror is the psychological thriller Images. With this 1972 film, he slipped from his own carefully constructed mold to fashion an intimate and eerie environment. Images is a good film, more promising than revelatory. Altman fully delivered on that film’s horrific promise five years later when he made 3 Women. This is, indeed, a revelation. The seed was a dream that so unsettled the filmmaker that he resolved to free it from his consciousness and release it into the world as his most thoroughly disturbing film. The premise is simple: blank slate Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) befriends sad chatterbox Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) and slowly absorbs Millie’s personality until becoming the person Millie only pretends to be. The psychological implications of that premise are fairly creepy, but Altman really brings his film to the precipice of horror in his execution. The opening credits set the dreadful tone with Gerald Busby’s atonal music and Bodhi Wind’s mural depicting some sort of mermaid assault. That opening casts gloomy shade over the early passages of 3 Women, which are more comedic than horrific. As Pinky’s transformation progresses, the horror seeps in most assuredly, culminating in a terrifying dream sequence in which Pinky imagines she’s been stabbed to death with a kitchen knife. Even more disturbing is Millie’s delivery of woman #3’s (Janice Rule) stillborn baby. Soaked in blood, Millie stalks toward the camera in what may have been an unconscious homage to Spacek’s very similar post-period walk in Carrie.

10. Blue Velvet (1986 – dir. David Lynch)

With a few scattered exceptions (The Elephant Man, Dune, The Straight Story), David Lynch has kept one foot in the avant garde and one in Hollywood since making his experimental—and very scary—early shorts “The Alphabet” and “The Grandmother”. This means that he has dallied with genre films, though to strictly classify Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as horror, Wild at Heart as a comedy, or Blue Velvet as noir mystery would be reductive. Each of Lynch’s films are flecked with all of these elements, but their juxtapositions always create the deep feeling of unease that is so integral to horror. The director likes few things more than giving his viewers a goofy giggle one moment only to blast them with unexpected horror in the next frame. This seesawing between the silly and the terrible is what makes Blue Velvet so unique from the classic noirs it mimics at its surface. As the film’s prologue shows us, a slight dip below that surface reveals a monstrous landscape squirming with insects. The biggest and baddest of all these creatures is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a gas-huffing sociopath whose only means of expressing love for the woman of his dreams (Isabella Rossellini) is a punch and a bilious spew of expletives. At first his potty-mouthed raving is so over-the-top that it tends to draw laughter. Frank stifles that laughter when his verbal abuse turns physical, leading into one of the most tension-fraught sequences to invade a non-horror movie. The only movie monster of comparable odiousness may be the dark half in Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and at least he spent half his time as a good guy. Frank is all bad, all the time. Lynch portrays his villain as something less than human. Frank growls like some leviathan from the floor of Loch Ness, his face distorting hideously in Jeffrey Beaumont’s (Kyle MacLachlan) nightmares. Lynch’s films would soon become even more phantasmagoric with the explicit horrors of Fire Walk with Me and Lost Highway, and the less genre-specific, though even scarier, Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. Blue Velvet tipped us off that we must always remain on guard when watching a David Lynch film, because no matter what kind of movie we think we’re watching, horror could get pitched in our faces at any moment.
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