Spoilers, yes of course spoilers, we’re not children here.
The House on Haunted Hill
Of all the Vincent Price characters, Frederick Loren is the Vincent Priciest. You know the premise because it is The Premise. $10,000 a head for sticking out a [host-described] “spend the night ghost party.” William Castle has a way with mid-century gimmick cinema (original screenings had a skeleton rigged to the ceiling that would zoom above the audience), so I was surprised at how beside the point much of the horror seemed. The real discomfort is being stuck in the midst of a feuding couple, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf played out on an allegorical scale. Droll as hell.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The movie! Yes, the movie, the movie Joss Whedon hates, the movie he says they ruined. Guess what! They didn’t! It’s great! It’s delightful! Donald Sutherland is at his crusty best, and Kristy Swanson is a charismatic smart ditz who has more in common with Cher Horowitz than Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy. Funnier and punchier than the show at its best (which, despite being out of my circle of beloved TV at this point, I can admit certainly had its moments), it makes a compelling argument for Joss Whedon having his artistic visions foiled, or at least tampered with.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The first one, the one that changed everything. This movie does more with sounds and textures than most do with, well, anything. Deeply suspenseful (like maybe the closest comparison would be Deliverance in terms of movies that made my entire body hurt from tension), and really and truly gross. The matter of factness of the killers/tormentors and of the camera’s eye make it feel more like watching a snuff film (I would imagine??? and also prefer not to) than a conventional movie. One of the rare slasher movies where people seem to behave like actual people, displaying the kind of irrationality and clumsiness borne of mortal fear rather than a filmmaker’s convenience.
Creepy, with a heavy lean on the xenophobic elements of Dracula (surprise surprise, Weimar Germany). These early Draculas, Max Schrek’s Count Orlock and Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, divide right along the line between grotesque and sexual, and ne’er the twain shall meet until Gary Oldman. Love all three; you’re all my precious children of the night. Visually more thrilling than Browning’s Dracula, v. gif-able.
Shadow of the Vampire
Kind of a forgotten treasure, this one. “Max Schrek was actually a vampire” is such a simple premise, and it’s treated with equal parts humor and terror. Willem Defoe’s performance turning on a dime from goofy oddness to genuine menace. Malkovich’s F.W. Murnau is great—turning the Stanislavsky Method into an actual act of violence against his actors would be a heavy-handed metaphor, except that it’s done so deftly. The film is brisk and compact, a tidy little present that left me awed and unsettled.
The Masque of Red Death
Roger Corman’s reputation as the n’est plus ultra of B movies makes it easy to forget that the man had one hell of an eye. It’s not just that he could work with a low budget, but that he could make a low budget look good. The imagery in The Masque of Red Death is lurid and genuinely unnerving, and the movie gets a lot of mileage out of its skimpy (though visually rich) source material. Geoff described this one to me as “The most Tumblr movie that Tumblr hasn’t discovered yet,” and I get what he means; it’s almost infectiously screencappy. Plenty of ~socioeconomic relevance~, if you go in for that, and I usually do.
The Devil’s Advocate
Expensive, high camp, as only the ’90s could bring us. The days of these opulent, misguided studio dramas are basically over, and it breaks my heart a little. This movie is such an artifact of that era. Pacino’s rants are as great as advertised, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The hamfisted symbolism, the unconvincing casting, the way every single actor says the word “fuck” the way an eleven-year-old, proud to be getting away with something, says the word “fuck.” There’s just so much to love. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Bride of Frankenstein
Rarely have I been so taken aback; this one was both weirder and more moving than I ever could have imagined. Full of perverse touches, like an assortment of homunculi in jars (including a miniature king that looooves mischief) nestled right up against moments of heartbreak (the monster experiencing his first, all too brief moments of kindness), it’s a disorienting balance, but an exciting one. Elsa Lanchester brings her doe-eyed oddness in equal measure to the parts of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and The Bride. Imagine the crushing despair in being a monster and having another monster look at you and go “eww.” I don’t have to imagine, because I was a teenager once. Great movie. Highly recommended.
The Evil Dead
Oh-ho did this one ever push the limits of the amount of gore I can tolerate! I didn’t find myself as invested in it as I wanted to be, but I will say this: there aren’t a lot of movies that I can say are shot funny, but Evil Dead definitely is. I appreciated its madcap, funhouse-y quality* more than I did its over-the-top grossness (I get the appeal—I just don’t feel it). As a declarative statement by a young filmmaker, it’s great, an endearingly excessive demonstration of imagination (I felt the same way watching Dead Alive).
The Blair Witch Project
Nope. Boo. Yes, it’s always disappointing watching an influential movie over a decade later, when its pervasiveness has already become overwhelming. But there is a clear delineation between something that was good at the time and something that was never good, and this is the latter. Not only is its found footage format unjustified (because guess what—THE FOUND FOOTAGE FORMAT IS ALWAYS UNJUSTIFIED), the movie spends untold amounts of energy desperately trying to justify it, at the expense of telling a good story. And look, I’m terror > horror to the grave (HAHHH), but if you want your audience to make up the difference with their own sick imaginations, you have to give them something to work with. A hint. Anything.
And noooot to get on a soapbox about it, but this whole movie is about a woman who is a big whiner, a shitty leader, and a poor navigator. Come on now.
Story by M. Night Shyamalan, which should be enough of a goofy draw, but it’s so much more. People stuck in an elevator, but one of them is tHe DeViL, as though a bunch of 15-year-olds were rounded up and asked to pitch movies and this is the one that was chosen. The presence of the Devil is demonstrated by a character throwing a piece of toast (found in a security room?) only to have it land butter-side down, SEE? Don’t you SEE IT, you can’t turn a blind eye to this STUNNING EVIDENCE. This puppy is a well-oiled machine of bush league ideas, and it’s a real delight to watch. The Devil is the old lady because of course it is. She escapes at the end. I imagine her flying above Philadelphia in her sensible shoes, cackling wildly as Our Protagonist, he of the dead loved ones and the drinking problem and the lapsed faith, forgives the man who killed said loved ones in a hit and run and oh man how can I do this justice?
To sum up, Devil is like watching a high school play of itself, and that alone makes it worthwhile.
Children of the Corn
You know how sometimes you look at a title and think “That is, if not a metaphor, than a demonstration of some kind of indirectness, because it’s not possible that it is a literal description of the movie I am about to watch.” Well strap in, buckaroos, because Children of the Corn is about children and corn. That’s all I’ve got to say about it.
Dressed to Kill
Brian De Palma does Psycho, and it makes you wonder why, after that, anyone would think they actually had to remake Psycho. A snappy little thriller with some unpleasantly retrograde attitudes toward trans* people (the villain gets correctly gendered more often than not, however, which is…something??). Lotta great outfits in this one, and some really super scenes of suspense. It’s not a controversial opinion to say that De Palma’s always been gunning for the Next Hitchcock pedestal, and the guy has the chops. This movie is a good object lesson in making heavy-handedness work for you.
When I finish watching a movie for the first time, I like to take to Wikipedia afterward, because hey, you learn a lot of good things that way, and sometimes movies have truly incredible pages. This is one where I’d recommend going there first because while there’s something to be said for going into a movie this notoriously bonkers blind, I found that the context (like for example, that the writer wrote in English although she didn’t have the firmest grasp on it and was also trying to express her anger at her vegetarian friends through cinema) only heightened my appreciation.
If I had watched this while still living in a house in the Valley, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep. It is THE suburban slasher, where terror lurks into the ten foot distance in the dark between you and the outdoor laundry room, or behind the tall windows, which, missing the natural light that makes them so desirable, turns them into prosceniums for a play you can never be sure you aren’t acting in front of a shadowy voyeur. Pleasantly surprising how well it holds up in spite of its familiarity. It leans a little heavily on third act character stupidity, but the scares are real all the same.
Pleasantly surprised by this one as well. In-jokey and self-referential while still being genuinely scary and subversive, it’s basically the movie that a lot of very wrong people told me Cabin in the Woods would be. Watching Wes Craven lacerate the genre that made him (all the while very much serving that genre) is exciting in a way that watching Joss Whedon point at a trope and say “That trope” could never be. Look at everybody’s precious ’90s faces. Skeet Ulrich, hope he’s out there somewhere, having drinks with Claire Forlani and talking about what might have been. The biggest disappointment of this movie was finding out that Breckin Meyer was up for Jamie Kennedy’s role and didn’t get it. Could you imagine, could you EVEN IMAGINE the warmth he would have brought to that role? David Arquette shoulders the warmth burden just fine. Did he and Courtney Cox meet on that set? Was it their Cruel Intentions? Rose McGowan should never be blonde, not ever.
*Fun fact about me: The first time I was ever in a funhouse I had to be bodily lifted out the window into the arms of my mom because I was absolutely not having it. Circus aesthetics are creepy enough in themselves, but I remember being wholly terrified at the idea that the only way out was through, which is why I was also scared of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and why every time the L train is delayed under the East River it takes years off my life.