Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: 10 low-cost horror flicks that deliver more than their share of cheap thrills
10. “Cube” (1998)
Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Andr
Made for a pittance, this is one of the most visually striking and intensely physical low-budget horror flicks, and it doesn’t waste a second getting started. Alderson (Julian Richings) wakes up in a room with six hatched doors and has to find his way out. His search leads him from one room or chamber to another, each new room signified by a change in color; he makes the wrong choice and is diced into pieces. The film then follows a group of prisoners trying to escape the mysterious cube. We don’t know why they’re in here, nor do we know the rules governing the place — we’re just feeling our way through the insanity, like the characters. A great puzzle film as well as a great horror film, “Cube” owes as much to video games, riddles, fairy tales and religious parables as it does to shock-crazy midnight cinema. Yet it never lets the characters lapse into mere types, and its plot builds with ruthless, meticulous logic, rewarding those who can control their fear, think logically and look for patterns. Ingenious stuff.
9. “Paranormal Activity” (2007)
Written and directed by Oren Peli
Although its intense pre-release hype and big-money, major-studio acquisition created a backlash that persists to this day, the independently produced, super-low-budget “Paranormal Activity” — about a couple plagued by apparently demonic intrusions in their home — is indeed scary as hell. It’s a truly original horror picture that uses grainy surveillance camera footage both as a narrative device and a means of deepening mystery and dread. Director Oren Peli understands that what you can’t see is often scarier than what you can see, and that there’s something singularly terrifying about being aware of eerie activity somewhere in the frame, yet being forced to look at it from a fixed position; it makes you feel as though you’re trapped in a nightmare where your feet are nailed to the floor, or where you’re trying to run but not getting anywhere. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about this film.
8. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)
Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Daniel Mainwaring
The original pod people movie, Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is often described as a comment on Red Scare paranoia, but it’s much more than that; it’s a great horror film that strikes to the core of a primal human fear — that the friend or relative you love and trust is becoming someone or something else, blank and malignant and untrustworthy, and that there is a faceless, nameless conspiracy afoot, its origin and motive unknown. It generates more suspense from inscrutable faces and suspicious looks than most horror films could manage with a herd of giant monsters and several gallons of blood. The final scene is a stunner — still chilling after all these decades.
7. “Sisters” (1973)
Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose
After an early career steeped in counterculture experimentation, this was the first Brian De Palma film that could be classified as a straight-up psychological horror picture. Margot Kidder plays a model stalked by her former Siamese twin, who has become mentally unhinged; Jennifer Salt plays a reporter who witnesses a murder and enlists a private eye (Charles Durning) to check into the mysterious sisters. Definitely one of the most original and unsettling movies about twins (a surprisingly rich subgenre; see “Dead Ringers” and “Twin Falls, Idaho”), “Sisters” is also the movie in which De Palma became De Palma as we now know him. It invokes Alfred Hitchcock’s compositions and pacing and even enlists his regular collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, as its composer.
But it also perfects a dryly acidic brand of humor that is distinctively De Palma’s, tweaking Freudian psychology, race relations and early-’70s feminist thought, and using one of the director’s favorite visual devices, the split-screen, to show simultaneous actions occurring in different locales. Made for a half-million dollars, “Sisters” grossed several times that, paving the way for the director’s early masterpiece “Carrie” (1975), and establishing him as a director you had to pay attention to, whether you loved or hated his work.
6. “Dawn of the Dead” (1978)
Written and directed by George Romero
This George Romero film keeps popping up in my slide shows because it satisfies so many criteria. It’s a great zombie film, of course, and a great sequel, but it’s also a magnificent example of low-budget horror — perhaps more impressive in certain ways than its predecessor, 1968′s “Night of the Living Dead,” because it explores a single, vast, depopulated setting (a suburban shopping mall) so thoroughly that it turns it into one of the great settings in the history of movies, a whole universe with metaphoric as well as physical dimensions. The screenplay’s ambitions are just as vast: “Dawn of the Dead” is at once an epic horror picture, an exploitation film, a “Lord of the Flies”-style study of civilization in decay, and a portrait of alienation that at times recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte” and “L’Eclisse.” All that plus a zombie getting his head chopped off with a helicopter blade. Bravo, maestro.
5. “Repulsion” (1965)
Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by David Stone
Roman Polanski’s first English language feature is a perfect illustration of a type of horror movie that Polanski does better than anyone — a film in which you cannot be entirely sure if the protagonist is losing her mind or if there truly is something sick/twisted/evil going on. Catherine Deneuve stars as Carol, a Belgian manicurist living in Kensington, England. She starts to unravel when her roommates — her sister and her sister’s husband — go on vacation; she starts behaving oddly at work, leaves a skinned rabbit out until it starts to decay, and imagining all manner of horrific images, including hands reaching out of walls to grab her and an intruder raping her. This is only the beginning of the film’s madness; soon Carol is involved in a real-life crime. Or is she? Polanski keeps you guessing from start to finish; the ending is one of the great head-scratcher closing scenes in movies, and utterly perfect.
4. “Re-Animator” (1985)
Directed by Stuart Gordon. Written by Stuart Gordon, William Norris, Dennis Paoli
“He’s brilliant, but a little weird.” That’s how the announcer in the trailer for “Re-Animator” describes its main character, demented medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), and it’s what might politely be termed an understatement. West has figured out how to reanimate dead tissue. He starts refining his process on corpses in the morgue. And all hell breaks loose. The resulting mix of horror, satire and academic competitiveness is singularly depraved, “The Paper Chase” as directed by Dario Argento.
Loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s novel “Herbert West-Reanimator,” this debut film from Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon (“From Beyond,” “Edmond”) is a midnight movie par excellence, serving up a series of increasingly gruesome, outlandish situations with such panache and rude wit that you scream, then laugh, then laugh at yourself for screaming. The film goes too far early on, then keeps going and going and going. I will never forget seeing this film for the first time one midnight in Dallas. I’ve never heard a crowd react more vocally to any film, ever — especially during the now-notorious sequence that lends new meaning to the phrase “giving head.”
3. “Halloween” (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
John Carpenter’s third feature takes its stylistic cues from its masked killer, Michael Myers. It doesn’t run, it walks. The pace is leisurely, the better to let the movie linger on atmospheric details. Carpenter composed the menacing score, performed it on a synthesizer, and credited it to “the Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra,” in honor of his Kentucky hometown. Although the film is set in small-town Illinois, it was shot in Hollywood in April of 1978, with fans placed out of frame to blow the same pitiful handful of fall leaves around. The killer has no motivation besides malignancy and a wish to revisit the scene of a childhood murder spree. The plot is just a setup for intricately choreographed scenes of stalking and carnage. The film’s producer, Irwin Yablans, told Carpenter and his co-writer, Debra Hill, that he wanted a script with a “Boo!” every 10 minutes, and they delivered. It’s like a punk rock “Psycho,” stripped down and relentless; Carpenter pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic by giving “Psycho” names to a couple of his characters, making Myers’ weapon of choice a butcher knife, and casting “Psycho” star Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as the film’s resourceful baby-sitter heroine.
The movie’s greatness lies in its mastery of pacing, composition, editing and sound effects, the basic building blocks of all cinema, horror especially. “Halloween” revived the career of supporting actor Donald Pleasence, who plays the crusading psychiatrist Sam Loomis, and made a B-movie star of Curtis. It became one of the most profitable films ever made, earning $47 million at the box office (versus a $320,000 budget) and single-handedly inspiring a wave of knockoff slasher flicks, most of them infinitely bloodier and less cleverly directed than “Halloween.”
2. “Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Directed by Herk Harvey. Written by Herk Harvey and John Clifford
“Carnival of Souls” is an extended flashback that starts with a talented young organist named Mary surviving a car accident that drowns all her fellow passengers in a river. This leads into a picaresque and deeply unnerving account of Mary’s life in the aftermath of the tragedy. She drifts away from her old life, moves into a new place, meets new people and gets a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City; she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her, becomes mysteriously attracted to a pavilion, hears church organ music wherever she goes (even on the radio) and starts seeing a mysterious figure known as The Man. (He’s played by the film’s director, Herk Harvey.) It is suggested that The Man represents a link to another world that was opened up by the accident; Mary is suspended between the worlds, and torn between fear of The Man and (in one memorable scene) an attraction so powerfully erotic that it summons ghouls who waltz in the pavilion’s grand ballroom.
A huge influence on David Lynch, “Carnival of Souls” is one of the most eerily perfect of horror films. It’s also proof that you can’t always judge a filmmaker by his previous body of work; prior to directing “Carnival of Souls,” Herk Harvey was a director for Lawrence, Kan.-based Centron Films, which made industrial training films, travel films and short instructional movies shown in classrooms.
1. Eraserhead (1977)
Written and directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s debut feature starts with a shot of a man’s face, placed off-center in the lower left hand corner of the frame under the looming title “ERASERHEAD.” After a moment, the man slowly rises higher in the frame, then begins to float around the edges. Behind him is a wrinkled orb that might be a brain, but which gradually comes to resemble a barren planet; we fly over it like a spaceship preparing to land on a moon. The sequence only gets stranger from there, culminating with a slow zoom into a circle of white light that suggests a birth. The story, such as it is, unfolds in a hideous post-industrial wasteland, and concerns the pathetic, terrifying relationship between sad-sack Henry (Jack Nance) and his ex-girlfriend Mary, who has given birth to what everyone assumes is their child: a malformed infant creature that looks like a mutant chicken. “They’re not even sure it is a baby,” Mary says.
Arguably the greatest midnight movie of all time, and surely one of the most impressive and original debut features, “Eraserhead” does more with less than any film of the 1970s. It’s an instructional manual for aspiring filmmakers, an object lesson in how to transform lack into abundance.
None of the performances are “realistic.” None of the situations are logical. Every shot seems both real and metaphorical. Watching the film is like having someone else’s nightmare. You can’t decode it because you don’t have the key. “Eraserhead” is a great horror movie not just because of what it shows, but how it shows it: with menace, mystery and a pitiless hypnotic eye.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.