Wednesday, October 17, 2012

some offbeat horror picks by justin lockwood

As a horror fan, I have plenty of love for classics like the original Halloween and Psycho, The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc., etc.  But I’m fond of more offbeat choices as well: the films that might fly under some people’s radar but which I find myself returning to again and again for their style, craftsmanship, and entertainment value.  Herewith, some less heralded scary movies which I highly recommend.

The Sentinel (1977) is an odd little movie, no bones about it.  A glossy rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby, the film focuses on a troubled model (Kate Jackson lookalike Cristina Raines) who moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone with a backstory almost as sordid as her own.  The combination of surreal imagery, pseudo-religious hooey, and bad taste (real “freaks” figure in the finale) is arresting and extremely creepy.  Props go to supporting players Chris Sarandon, as the sleazy boyfriend, and the always welcome Burgess Meredith, as one of the eccentric neighbors.  This one will stay with you.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) This oddity from producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill had a lot working against it from the beginning, being a complete departure from the knife-wielding shenanigans of  Halloweens I and II. Rather than bring back Michael Myers, who they’d attempted to kill off in II (he’d be resurrected six years later), the creators spun a whole new story in hopes of creating an annual anthology of Halloween related features. No dice: the movie met with lukewarm box office and scathing reviews, and was almost universally reviled by fans. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, but on the recommendation of my friend Roman (this is actually his favorite of the series) I gave it another look and was pleasantly surprised by how dark, moody, and entertaining it is. Season of the Witch tells the tale of Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), who witnesses a patient’s bizarre death and tries to uncover the mystery behind it. With the deceased’s daughter Ellie at his side, Challis uncovers an unspeakable plot by the head of Silver Shamrock Novelties, a small-town toy company whose Halloween masks are almost as ubiquitous as their annoying commercials. (“Three more days till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, three more days till Halloween, Silver Shamrock…”) Robots, gore, and a piece of Stone Henge (!) all come into play as our heroes race to save America’s children from a gruesome fate on All Hallow’s Eve. Because it’s written, filmed, and scored by the same team as the first two films, HIII actually feels a lot more like a Halloween movie than most of the subsequent sequels. It’s also intense and frightening, with a completely nihilistic ending that pays homage (like the rest of the movie) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Two decades later, director Tommy Lee Wallace has reason to feel good about his misunderstood creation, which has a cult following and was just reissued on a special edition DVD.

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Another in-name-only sequel shares only a prom setting with the Jamie Lee Curtis Halloween knockoff but nothing else; it’s also much better.  Bruce Pittman’s Canadian production focuses on doe-eyed good girl Vicki, who accidentally unleashes the titular psycho bitch when she opens an old chest, then becomes possessed by her.  Her good-natured boyfriend Craig tries to help, while Craig’s dad (Michael Ironside) struggles with his guilt for his part in Mary’s fiery death (shown in the prologue) thirty years prior.  Off-the-wall, inventive makeup effects and a cheeky script make this movie a campy good time, even if it borrows from Carrie and The Exorcist (“Linda Blairsville!”) in equal measure.

Nightbreed (1990) Clive Barker’s follow-up to his Hellraiser movies was this adaptation of his novella Cabal. Reportedly the studio’s misguided attempt to market it as a slasher flick (which it definitely isn’t) contributed to its box office failure, though it seems to have gained newfound appreciation in the years since. Although it’s dark and frightening, Nightbreed is more of a fantasy than a straight-up horror film, with a clever twist: the monsters are the heroes, and the humans “the bad guys.” When troubled Boone (Craig Sheffer) is framed for a series of murders actually perpetrated by his therapist Decker (David Cronenberg, better known as a director but absolutely frightening here), he flees to Midian, a mythical city he’s heard is a haven for misfits and monsters. His arrival is initially met with opposition, though; the vicious Peloquin takes a bite out of his chest! (Side note: it was at this point that my mother forced my father to leave the theater, an indignity that he’s never let her live down.) Soon, though, the vividly imagined denizens of Midian accept Boone as their own, and he discovers some beastly powers, too. With the help of faithful girlfriend Lori—who seems to subscribe to the philosophy that it doesn’t matter if a man’s a monster, so long as he’s *your* monster—Boone fends off Decker and the police in their attempt to destroy this secret community. With its saga of authorities persecuting what they don’t understand, Nightbreed works as a queer allegory (Barker is himself gay), but however you read it, this is a compelling and highly stylized adventure with unique characters and a lot of heart.

Halloween II (2009) Fans who caught Rob Zombie’s follow-up to his controversial remake are forgiven for writing it off—it was stunning to look at but offered little originality or character development.  The director’s cut, however, is a different story.  Most of the deleted scenes involve Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton), Michael Myers’ sister and sole survivor of his Halloween massacre.  She fights constantly with her best friend and fellow victim Annie (Danielle Harris) with whom she lives uneasily; she struggles to confide in her therapist (welcome back, Margot Kidder!) while fear and resentment bubble up inside her; and she agonizes over the revelation that she’s related to a mass murderer, a connection that manifests itself in her tortured subconscious.  The Zombie edit amounts to a blood-soaked character study of Laurie and Dr. Loomis (the terrific Malcolm McDowell), who reaches new heights of hucksterism before attempting redemption at the climax.  The ending is far superior, and Zombie’s fourth film is also his most visually accomplished, with his best camera work to date.

-Justin Lockwood


  1. I assumed only us Horror Convention freaks enjoyed these "off the beaten track" type horror movies. I'm relieved to see there are others out there who enjoyed these gems. A truly great selection of movies! You made my day with this one!

  2. Glad you enjoyed but in truth, I am a bit of a Horror Convention freak, Karen. Shh! Don't tell anyone.

  3. Halloween III has slowly become a cult favorite of mine, I will watch it every year.