by Brian J. Showers, © October 2004

HEY, DID ANYONE ELSE notice it's nearly Halloween? Once again I've spent my entire year combing through new and old horror films so that I can present you, dead, er... dear reader, with a list of ten ghastly genre gems. Whether you like your horror dripping with entrails or merely implied by the rustling of a curtain, there's something in this list for you. There are old classics from the US of A and new classics from countries you didn't even know made films. So without further a-grue, I'd like to present a fantastic feast of frightening films to help you through October. Boo!

1. MAY, Directed by Lucky McKee, USA, 2002

Lazy-eyed May (Angela Bettis) has been a misfit and an outcast all her life. As an adult she lives alone, her only friend being a handmade doll given to her as a child. After corrective lenses lead to a newfound confidence, May begins to reach out to those around her: a hunk (Jeremy Sisto) at the local laundromat, a feisty co-worker (Anna Faris), and through volunteer work with blind children. But her maladapted idiosyncrasies and growing idealism only hinder her in the search for a real friend. Rebuffed on all fronts, May applies her skewed logic and comes up with a monstrous plan to find true companionship.

This is easily the most overlooked horror film of 2002. Like Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), this unsettling film invokes a deep sympathy for its innocent main character who slowly, and much to the horror of the audience, becomes the movie's shocking antagonist. Excellent performances by Angela Bettis and Jeremy Sisto help to create a perfect, unnerving vibe throughout the entire film. Keep an eye out for these actors, as well as director Lucky McKee, in the near future.

2. THE HAUNTING, Directed by Robert Wise, UK, 1963

Paranormal researcher, Dr. Markway, assembles a group of psychic subjects at Hill House, the most haunted and evil house in the country. Among the subjects is Eleanor Lance, a nervous woman who has yet to find her place in life. As Eleanor's obsession with the house grows, so too does its sinister and inexplicable power over her. Is the haunting all in her head--or is there something more? "Hill House, not sane, stood by itself amongst its hills, holding darkness within . . . and whatever walked there walked alone."

Don't bother with the desperate 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This is the original, a scary-as-hell psychological film for those who don't like to see a lot of the red stuff--and that's not just because the film is in black and white. This beautifully directed movie is a faithful adaptation Shirley Jackson's chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House. The sets are so spectacular and authentic that an early advertisement was geared specifically at antiques buffs! Don't miss out on what is probably the best haunted house movie of all time.

3. PIECES (Mil gritos tiene la noche), Directed by Juan Piquer Simón,
   Spain/USA, 1983

Prologue: A child is caught by his mother with a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman. The mother punishes the child. The angry child then chops her up with an axe. Catch all that? Good. Now, forty years later, the murderer stalks a local college. The film follows Kendall, the campus stud, and a local police detective as they investigate the series of slaughters. But who is hacking up the student body with butcher knives, axes, and other sharp objects? Is it Willard, the chainsaw wielding gardener? Lieutenant Bracken, the ultra-dramatic detective? Or is it Professor Arthur Brown... the homosexual? Everyone's a suspect!

Those of you looking for a good, bloody comedy, look no further. I don't know if it was intentional, but this has got to be one of the worst, yet entertaining and oddly satisfying films ever made. If your local video store has a copy, rent it, buy a case of Blatz, and watch this film with your buddies and your kung fu professor. They don't make films like this anymore!

4. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, Directed by Rob Zombie, USA, 2003

You know the story: October 30, 1977, a dark and stormy night. Four teenagers driving cross-country stumble across Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen where they learn about the legend of Doctor Satan (and get a bag of complementary fried chicken). Intrigued by the legend, they set out to find the tree where Doc Satan was hanged, but end up with a flat tire. That's when they're given shelter from the rain by the hillbilly-like Firefly family, a colorful clan of mass-murdering cannibal fiends that make the Texas Chainsaw family look positively sane.

After being filmed in 2000, Universal washed its hands of the movie, deeming it too sadistic and horrific to release. In 2003, the good folks at Lion's Gate finally picked up and released the by then notorious film. I don't care what anyone says--I like this movie. It's a wild ride with more garish colors and a blacker sense of humor than most horror films. You could certainly do much worse. Director Rob Zombie's gonzo sensibilities make for an extreme experience that doesn't stop until the film does. Sure, the plot may fall to the wayside, but that doesn't make this zany circus of a film any less entertaining. Hope you like what you see!

5. THE THING, Directed by John Carpenter, USA, 1982

Members of a science outpost in remote Antarctica are shocked to see a Norwegian helicopter shooting rifles and lobbing grenades at a frightened dog. When the helicopter crashes, the scientists decide to take the animal into their laboratory/residential compound. Unfortunately for them, the dog is not a dog, but an alien that takes the form of whatever it touches. The alien shape-shifts and replaces one of the scientists--but which one? Tempers flare and paranoia rules supreme until the explosive climax, one that only John Carpenter could deliver.

Horror wunderkind John Carpenter serves up what is arguably his best horror film after Halloween (1978). This is actually a remake of a 1951 sci-fi thriller directed by Howard Hawks called The Thing From Another World, and as far as I'm concerned, a vast improvement in every department. This film boasts first-rate acting, intense special effects, and an intelligent script. What more could you ask for? Did I hear someone say Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley? Well, guess what--they're in it too!

6. DRÁCULA (Spanish-language version), Directed by George Melford &
   Enrique Tovar Àvalos, USA, 1931

Everyone knows the story of Dracula, so I'll cut to the chase and tell you about this version and why it's so special. While Tod Browning was filming his Béla Lugosi classic during the day, another crew worked by night filming a Spanish-language version on the same sets. The Spanish-language version is about a half an hour longer than its English counterpart. In the commentary, film historian David Skal said that every evening the night crew began the work 'day' by watching Browning's rushes and noting what worked and what didn't, and then improved each scene, shot for shot.

Browning's iconic movie is admittedly very stiff, filmed without flare, mostly in static long shots. The technically superior Spanish version possesses a lushness and fluidity that its cousin lacks. In the later version we are treated to extra/extended scenes, more camera movements, and a chance to see how detailed the sets really were. The Spanish-language version is available, along with the original, on Universal's Dracula Legacy Collection. Watch both versions and make up your own mind!

7. TENEBRAE (Sotto gli occhi dell'assassino), Directed by Dario    Argento, Italy, 1982

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is an American novelist promoting his new thriller, Tenebrae, in Rome. Upon Neal's arrival to the Eternal City, a serial killer slays his first victim according to the book--Tenebrae, in fact! After every murder the killer slips a clue--sometimes photos of the victims, sometimes passages from Tenebrae--under Neal's hotel door. One note proclaims that, "Tenebrae is about human perversion and its effect on society," another that the next murder will be that of the "Great Corrupter"--the author, Neal himself. Like a character in his own novel, Neal must solve the mystery before he becomes the next victim.

Dario Argento does it again with what could be his best giallo, complete with all the usual ingredients: subjective camera shots, a black, leather gloved killer, surreal dream sequences (whoa!), and brutally elaborate murders that are as much set pieces as scenes. Throw in a memorable soundtrack by Italian prog-rock band The Goblins (who also scored Suspiria and the original Dawn of the Dead), and you've got a winner! Tenebrae, both the film and the book within the film, is Argento's comment on the effects of violent art on society, something that Argento himself is often accused of promoting.

8. THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (El espinazo del diablo), Directed by
   Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001

The Devil's Backbone tells the story of Carlos, a boy left behind at a remote orphanage after right-wing nationalists kill his father during the Spanish civil war. In charge of the secluded orphanage are a kindly doctor (Federico Luppi) and a wooden-legged headmistress (Marisa Paredes). Carlos quickly meets the rest of the orphanage's eclectic mix of residents: a local bully, a laborer searching for hidden gold, a pickled punk, and Santi, the ghost of an orphan boy who warns Carlos that, "Many of you will die." With Franco's fascist army quickly approaching, the growing avarice of the labourers, and an unexploded bomb in the courtyard, it's only a matter of time before Santi's warning comes true.

"What is a ghost?" asks the film. "A tragedy condemned to repeat itself? An instant of pain? An emotion suspended in time like a blurred photograph?" Only Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II) can direct a film like The Devil's Backbone with this much love and enthusiasm. Del Toro is exactly one half M.R. James and one half Ray Bradbury. There are very few as talented as del Toro capable of directing a ghost story with so much humanity. I daresay this is a horror film for the whole family.

9. PHANTASM, Directed by Don Coscarelli, USA, 1979

Mike looks up to Jody, his hip, jean-jacketed older brother, and follows him everywhere--even to a funeral. It's at the funeral, after everyone's left, that Mike witnesses a sinister mortician lifting the casket into the hearse with one Herculean arm. Mike, in disbelief, follows the Tall Man back to the mausoleum where things get increasingly surreal: razor-toothed dwarves, lethal steel balls that fly, and a portal to another dimension--quite possibly the gateway to Hell. It's only after Mike lops off the Tall Man's finger that he convinces his older brother and the local ice cream vendor (!!!) to help put a stop to the evil Tall Man and his insidious body-snatching plans.

Angus Scrimm, who plays his signature roll as the Tall Man, looks every inch of pure evil (he's 6'2"), and a sense of hopeless dread permeates the entire film. Don Coscarelli's first foray into horror is stylish, effective and unlike anything you've ever seen before. There are no horror conventions left unmodified in this movie, only fresh, demented twists at every turn. Don't expect for everything to be explained either--like most good horror, this film will leave you in shocked wonder. If you like this film, check out its three (soon to be four) sequels.

10. BUBBA HO-TEP, Directed by Don Coscarelli, USA, 2002

Get this: At the height of his career, the real Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) swapped roles with an Elvis impersonator in order to escape the celebrity lifestyle for a little while, but the impersonator died before the real Elvis could switch back. Now Elvis is a bitter, old man stuck in an East Texas nursing home and tired of trying to convince people that he is who he says he is. Of course it doesn't help that his best bud is a black man who thinks he's JFK (Ossie Davis). And it certainly doesn't help that an ancient Egyptian mummy is sucking the souls of the nursing home residents by night. So who's gonna stop'em? Elvis and JFK! Who else, baby?

This is an extremely likeable film due partly to Joe R. Lansdale's ridiculous story and partly to the incredibly convincing portrayals of Elvis and JFK by film legends Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. You'll actually believe they're Elvis and JFK without a question! If you can accept and embrace absurdity, this film is definitely for you. If you have a hard time eschewing reality, don't be scared: Campbell and Davis... I mean Elvis and JFK... will make it easy!

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