Classic Horror Flicks Offer Autumn Chills
Less blatant than one probably remembers, given its shock effects, William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" is less a tale of grotesque horror than it is a story of lost faith and redemption. Based on William Peter Blatty's best-seller, which was inspired by a real exorcism performed on a young boy, the 1973 film builds slowly and effectively from the first rumblings of sinister portent.
David Lynch's films straddle many genres: Is "Blue Velvet" horror, murder mystery, comedy or satire of small-town America? Is "Elephant Man" a Grand Guignol or a drawing room comedy of manners? But his most obvious contribution to the horror cinema was his first feature, "Eraserhead," dubbed by fans the weirdest film ever made, in which a young man confronts the deformed child born of a barely remembered assignation. "Weird" is probably an understatement.
In recent years, Japanese horror films (or in shorthand, J-Horror) have met with international success. Atmospheric, psychologically challenging (if also logically challenged) and deliberately paced, the best of these films brings eeriness to a new level.
Based on a popular Koji Suzuki novel and originally filmed as a Japanese TV movie, the 1998 hit "Ringu" spawned a cottage industry of sequels, prequels, a TV series and remakes (both in the U.S. and South Korea). This tale of a cursed videotape (anyone who watches it is doomed to die within a week) led to a flood of J-horror – Japanese tales of psychological dread and shock effects whose ability to creep out audiences cuts across language barriers. After all, screams are universal.
In addition to "Ringu," Hollywood has plumbed the genre for other films to remake, including "Dark Water," "Ju-On" ("The Grudge") and soon "The Eye."
The current crop of J-Horror certainly owes a huge debt to Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" (1964), a highly theatrical depiction of four ghost stories transposed to Japan. The film's cool aesthetics and jaw-dropping cinematography made it even more chilling. In the tale "Woman in the Snow" (deleted from original U.S theatrical prints but restored to DVD), a beautiful apparition that drains the life from a man lost in a snowstorm spares a woodsman's life, but only if a promise made can be kept. (And you know how well to trust murderous apparitions.)
Other foreign frights worth catching: George Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," in which a mad scientist grafts the skin of murdered women onto his daughter's deformed face; and the Dutch thriller "The Vanishing," whose climax is so creepy your spine will crawl right out the door.
"Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror" (1922), F.W. Murnau's stylized vampire tale starring Max Schreck, was the first (and still the best) film version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" – even if it wasn't an authorized adaptation. Some vampire aficionados may prefer Bela Lugosi's aristocratic air or Christopher Lee's overpowering seductiveness. But Schreck's thin and ghoulish appearance seemed the perfect visual depiction of the bloodsucking vampire stalking his victims.
Stoker's widow sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement and won, but fortunately she did not succeed in having every print destroyed, so this classic vampire flick continues to see the light of day.
At its most basic level, the 1979 science fiction thriller "Alien" was a rehash of "The Thing," in which an isolated group is terrorized by an unknown creature. But the startling makeup effects and stunning production design by artist H.R. Giger helped made this a smash – which in turn made Sigourney Weaver (the most resourceful of the hunted crew of the Nostromo) a star.
It also sported the very best ad line ever used for a horror film: "In space, no one can hear you scream."
Ah, but they can in apartment complexes. So keep your voices down.