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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 7
In Which Your Humble Columnist Gets into the Spirit of the Season

Halloween is once again almost upon us, and once again some of us will want to prepare by tripping the dark fantastic.  In that spirit, I've decided to list ten movies that I feel are truly worthy of being part of the video library of those who enjoy this season. 

The Rough Guide to Horror Movies There are, of course, disclaimers.  I have tried to avoid any of the movies out of Universal's classic period, since that list would be far too easy. For that same reason, I have also avoided most of the great movies in Hammer's horror canon.  Indeed, I've done my best to stay away from what one would consider canonical horror movies. Yes, I know Jaws, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist, The Thing (both Hawks and Carpenter), and several dozen others are classics, but frankly, most of us have seen them already. (And if you haven't, then you have serious gaps in your cinematic education.) So if a movie was listed in Stephen King's Danse Macabre or Douglas E. Winter's Faces of Fear, or if Alan Jones chose it as one of the canonical movies in his book The Rough Guide to Horror Movies, then I really did not want to list it here. The downside of this approach is that I have listed very few movies released prior to the 70s, but the upshot is that I found a wealth of movies released over the past thirty-five years that, in most cases, have not found a wide audience, especially in the wake of torture porn like Saw and Hostel and deplorable remakes like Rob Zombie's Halloween.

One last thing: I could not have put this list together without the help of my friends on Twitter and Facebook. Both Rick Klaw and Jessica Reisman proved invaluable in suggesting titles when I was stuck. And I'm indebted to my friend Tom Sweazea, whose knowledge of genre cinema is as deep as it is wide, for his movie call nights. Thanks to you all.

All should be easy to find at any decent video store (avoid Blockbuster if you can help it), or available through Netflix. 

Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, SalSalò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975, d. Pier Paolo Pasolini) Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, SalSalò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975, d. Pier Paolo Pasolini).
If any movie listed should come with a warning, this would be it. One of the most infamous movies ever made, Salo chronicles four Italian noblemen in the last days of Fascist Italy who round up sixteen teenage boys and girls in a secluded villa and subject them to a series of degrading events inspired by the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. Pasolini (who was murdered shortly after the movie's completion) structures this political allegory using Dante's Divine Comedy, and never flinches from the sequences of torture and madness, making the movie all the more disturbing. It's not easy to take, but worthwhile for those who can see past the nauseating images to the commentary on power, consumer culture, and totalitarianism. You've been warned.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987, d. Sam Raimi) Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987, d. Sam Raimi).
  Before Sam Raimi turned his back on horror movies to make smaller, more personal movies like Spider-Man, he made what is perhaps the greatest horror comedy of all.  Ash (played by Bruce Campbell) takes his girlfriend to a secluded cabin and plays a professor's tape recorded recitation of passages from the Book of the Dead calling forth up evil forces from the woods. Chainsaws, shotguns, crazed disembodied hands and flying eyeballs: honestly, what more could you possibly want from a motion picture?  (Sorry, no tree-raping scene this time out.)  It is, in the words of Ash, "groovy." 

Prince of Darkness (1987, d. John Carpenter).
There's something about religious horror movies that really gets to me, most of it having to do with my own quasi-religious upbringing.  I'm Buddhist now, but the ideas one finds in Christian mythology nonetheless make up a significant part of my psyche.  As a consequence, I tend to find horror movies with religious overtones scarier than most others.  I mean, if you're being attacked by vampires, werewolves, zombies or aliens then you're dealing with something physical and you can fight it.  But dealing with the forces of darkness, metaphysical beings… how do you fight that?  (My friend Paul Miles has this same problem.)  So in Carpenter's little shocker, a priest opens the door to the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church and finds a vat containing a green liquid that might be the essence of Satan himself. Even if Carpenter's post-Big Trouble in Little China effort doesn't always work, it's still chilling.

Matinee (1993, d. Joe Dante).
Admittedly, I'm cheating a little here. Matinee isn't a horror movie, but its intertwining stories of a boy adjusting to a new school in a small coastal town and a William Castle-style filmmaker (played with gusto by John Goodman) who plans to premiere his horror movie Mant! (yes, it's exactly what you think it is) while the Cuban Missile Crisis grips the nation show an incredible amount of insight into fear, growing up and showmanship. It also features one of the best descriptions of what going to the movies is like for the true cineaste. If you haven't seen it, you really should.

The Thing The Thing Prince of Darkness (1987, d. John Carpenter) Matinee (1993, d. Joe Dante)

Dagon (2001, d. Stuart Gordon) Dagon (2001, d. Stuart Gordon).
Based on H.P. Lovecraft's novella "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Dagon tells the story of two American tourists who seek help in the Spanish coastal town Imboca after their boat becomes shipwrecked, trapping their friends. The town's inhuman inhabitants, all worshippers of the fish god Dagon begin hunting the couple through the town's streets and catacombs. Gordon gets Lovecraft, making this adaptation the perfect entry for those who cannot abide his overly purple prose. (You should also see Gordon's adaptation of Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House" for Showtime's Masters of Horror.)

The Booth, Bûsu (2005, d. Yoshihiro Nakamura).
A friend of mine showed me this sublime ghost story over the Christmas holidays last year. Set primarily in a radio studio where, several years ago, a DJ committed suicide, an arrogant radio call-in host begins receiving disturbing calls in which one voice on line repeatedly whispers "Liar." Not believing the studio is cursed, he begins to suspect that the voice belongs to someone from a past he would much rather forget. A surprisingly effective shocker that adheres to the philosophy of "less is more."

The Host, Gwoemul (2006, d. Joon-ho Bong).
In this Korean updating of practically every Godzilla movie ever made, a lazy slob sees his daughter taken by a monster born of toxic sludge dumped by the U.S. military in Seoul's Han River. There are great shots and genuine food for thought here (one subplot has the government exploiting public fears for its own purposes), as well as a lot of suspense.

The Mist (2007, d. Frank Darabont) The Mist (2007, d. Frank Darabont).
I know a number of people who were disappointed by Frank Darabont's third adaptation of Stephen King's work (this time from one of King's best novellas), but for me, The Mist works on a number of levels, not the least of which because of its B-movie charms. After a violent thunderstorm, a commercial artist takes his eight-year-old son and his neighbor to a local grocery store for supplies and to clean the wreckage left in the storm's wake. A local townsperson runs into the store and warns shoppers of a creature lurking in an unusual mist that has fallen over the town. When the creature begins attacking those who venture outside, a siege mentality takes over the people in the store. Darabont eschews the treacle ladled over The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and turns up the horror show thrills to eleven.

Let the Right One In, Låt den rätte komma in (2008, d. Tomas Alfredson).
Shortly after seeing this subtle, lyrical film, my oldest son called it the greatest vampire movie ever made. In truth, it is hard for me to disagree. Set during the early 80s, it follows twelve-year-old Oskar, who must deal both with his distant mother and a gaggle of vicious school bullies, as he begins a relationship with his dark-haired new neighbor Eli, who appears to be his age on the surface but is in fact much older. This is a chilling movie, both in terms of its locale (you can almost feel the snow in every shot) and its subject matter, and lingers long after you've left the theater. By turns touching and terrifying. (Note: look for the version with the original subtitles.) (Note 2: The remake, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, isn't bad, either, but the original is the masterwork.)

Pontypool (2009, d. Bruce McDonald).
The friend mentioned in my overview of The Booth turned me on to this little gem of a zombie movie, also set in a radio station. Set entirely in a church basement converted into a radio station, talk radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) begins reporting on a series of bloody, seemingly spontaneous riots occurring within Pontypool, Ontario. The rioters, Mazzy learns, elicit zombie-like behavior brought on by language. (Laurie Anderson might have been right after all.) Tension mounts as one of Mazzy's coworkers becomes infected, trapping him and his producer in the broadcast booth. There's much to love in this suspenseful movie, from the claustrophobic setting to a surprising amount of humor. (Pontypool's "Sunshine Chopper," for example, is a lone reporter cruising through town in his Dodge Dart.) Combining elements of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and director Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Pontypool stands as one of the most suspenseful and unique entries into the ever-widening pantheon of zombie movies.

The Booth, Bûsu (2005, d. Yoshihiro Nakamura) The Host, Gwoemul (2006, d. Joon-ho Bong) Let the Right One In, Låt den rätte komma in (2008, d. Tomas Alfredson) Pontypool (2009, d. Bruce McDonald)

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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