Despite giving a mostly positive review last week, I’m not a big fan of horror movies. Most nowadays are just plotless schlock, with blood, guts and ominous music instead of real, smart filmmaking. But it is Halloween and, well, you have to watch a scary movie on Halloween. You just do. So this week, I’m highlighting a few movies for those people who want to get into the Halloween spirit but aren’t too thrilled about the usual slasher or monster movies most people think of as Halloween flicks.
"The Shining" (1980): OK, before I go on about unconventional Halloween movies, I have to pay homage to one of the best horror/suspense films of all time. Although it’s pretty unfaithful to Stephen King’s source material, Stanley Kubrick created his own entity out of King’s story. What is applied very well from the novel is King’s way of using the supernatural as a metaphor rather than just a plot device. From his use of telekinesis (as a metaphor for the ostracization and uncertainty that comes with puberty and young adulthood) in “Carrie” to the use of ghosts in “Shining” as a way to visualize Jack’s mental demons, King knows how to use the paranormal in smart ways.
“The Shining” stars Jack Nicholson as Jack, an alcoholic writer from New England (is it redundant to say “alcoholic writer living in New England” and “Stephen King story” together?). After losing his job, Jack takes his family to the Overlook Hotel, a large, hulking mansion, to stay for the winter. The hotel is deserted and it is up to the family to look after the isolated building. What follows is a masterpiece of suspense and horror. Kubrick lets the film breath, building the story and tension slowly through long, tracking shots around the cavernous hotel until the delicious “all work and no play” climax. I won’t say much more about “The Shining” here, whole books can be written on it, but if you’re already seen it, you’ll know why I’m mentioning it here. And if you haven’t? Well, then get off “Patch” and get ahold of the DVD...just kidding, keep reading Patch for a few hours and then watch it.
"The Orphanage"/El Orfanato" (2007): Along with “The Shining,” this Spanish-langauge haunted house story is the other most conventional horror film on my list. Like “The Shining,” this one also features a certain kind of haunted house, this time a Victorian home in Spain that was once an orphanage. After growing up there, Laura (Belen Rueda), now a married adult, returns to buy the home and turn it into a home for disabled children. But on the day of the first open house, tragedy strikes and Laura’s son disappears. There are no leads, no clues, except for a strange boy with a burlap bag over his head that Laura spots during the open house and some odd thumping noises.
Although it sounds like a typical ghost story, director Juan Antionio Bayona sets the film with in a dark, but not unrealistic, tone. And, although I definitely won’t give it away, the twist in end works perfectly. Most movies that rely on a shocking ending seem to fail –- the twist is either ludicrous or lackluster – but this one works just right. Surprising but not far fetched and makes you rethink all you’ve seen before it. Note: This film is similar to “The Devil’s Backbone,” another Spanish ghost story directed “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” Guillermo del Toro. I found them too similar to put on the same list (and I enjoyed “Orphanage” slightly more hense why it made the list), but both are well worth looking into.
"Let Me In" (2010): Next month, the second to last film adaption of a certain series of wildly popular teen books will come out. I can’t bring myself to name the series, but suffices to say, it is about a sparkly undead hunk and his melodramatic girlfriend. Got it? While throngs of teens will surely flock to that particular flick, what they should be doing is going out and renting “Let Me In” a fascinating remake of a Swedish suspense film. “Let Me In” does the seemingly impossible by creating a vampire film that is smart, realistic, scary and sweet. It follows Owen (“The Road” star Kodi Smit-McPhee), a scrawny pre-teen who is ignored by his parents and picked on by his classmates. One night outside his apartment he meets Abby (Chloe Moretz of “Kick Ass”) and they form a quick friendship. Problem is, Abby might not really be as young as she looks, in fact, she might not even be alive at all. The film doesn’t sensationalize the vampire theme, treating it like a Stephen King-esque metaphor. It’s moody and dark, but somehow hopeful and touching and should really have a place in the pantheon of vampire films.
"Catfish" (2010): “Catfish” is a documentary. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t bone chilling. It follows Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer. After one of his pictures is published in a magazine, he gets a package containing a painted representation of his photo sent by a little girl named Abby. Nev begins emailing with Abby and then her mother and older sister Megan. Nev’s relationship between with Megan blossoms from Facebook conversations to flirting and then an online romance. Sensing some awry, Nev’s roommates, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (who also later directed the recent film), decide to film this budding romance. What follows is part suspense (is Megan really who she says she is?) but also a brilliant and heartbreaking character study. There is a twist about half way through, but unlike “The Orphanage,” the twist here isn’t the end, its merely a springboard to go in another, even more interesting direction.
"Zombieland" (2009): Want a good laugh on Halloween? Look no further than “Zombieland,” a fast-paced, comic adventure starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. It’s a road movie, about a smart, nerdy student traveling across the country to escape the zombies that have taken over the U.S. Along the way, he picks up a gunslinger, a headstrong young woman and her younger sister. Funny and smart, scary and adventurous, “Zombieland” has something for everyone.
"No Country For Old Men" (2007): Sometimes the scariest things aren’t monsters or special effects, it’s the things that can, and do, happen everyday. Case in point is Anton Chigurh, the villain of “No Country For Old Men,” and one of the most terrifying movie characters I’ve ever seen. He’s a heartless killer with a strict moral code who is absolutely scary yet completely realistic. In “No Country,” Chigurh is sent to track down Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Texan who stumbles upon a drug bust gone bad and decides to steal the ill-gotten cash. On his tail is Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a veteran cop and “old man” of the title. Brother Joel and Ethan Coen’s use of silence and landscape is just perfect, creating a naturalistic thriller that is one of my favorite films of all times.